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November 7, 2014

The heart of a brand

Look out your window seat, and you might see the nation’s heartland below, in all its patchwork symmetry.

Look up at the bright blue sky, and you might see the heart of that heartland flying straight above. 

The new visual brand identity for Southwest Airlines, which rolled out this fall, evokes both concepts. In an industry of identities fashioned from wings and clouds (and the occasional Eskimo), the Southwest identity is all heart.

The triple-hue aircraft is now mostly sky-blue; the new signature tricolor heart is emblazoned on the underbelly. You can see it from the ground on planes flying at lower altitudes. 

It’s a winning identity, not just because of its crisp graphics, but because it communicates warmth and love. (Authenticity is another matter: Passenger surveys from the last couple of years reflect a sinking perception of the airline. So there's a disconnect between the visual promise and the actual experience.)

When we saw the new Southwest, we remembered a similar rebranding a few years back by its industry cousin – Northwest Airlines.

The year was 2004. Northwest opted to ground its remarkable logo for, well, something else. The old identity employed negative space to fashion two letters at once – an ‘n’ and a ‘w.’ The trailing compass point, aimed directly at the northwest quadrant, was a deft touch – but it was the simplicity of the rendered letters that made the logo brilliant.

The new Northwest identity trotted out an acronym – “nwa” – while retaining the compass point, which now looked as much like a downward arrow as a directional. 

The best identities make us look twice and think again. By that standard, Southwest is heading in the right direction.