United AirLines Logo History

This United advertisement dates from the 1930s


In 1934, the company standardized its logo, featuring a bar and a route map in the circle.

Although the official logo was the bar-and-circle, many variations of the logotype were used, in advertising and promotional material and on United¿s fleet.

In 1936, United selected a shield logo in red, white and blue to convey stability, solidarity and familiarity to the American travelers. Two versions were used with either a route map or a star.

United Airlines- A Branding Evolution

A well conceived and implemented logotype and brand demonstrates the importance the company places on managing resources. If the logo and brand are consistent, the company is often considered to be well managed overall. The following is an exploration of one company’s quest for brand consistency, relevancy and ultimately, equity.

Like many airlines formed in the early 1900's, United Airlines has evolved through numerous phases of change in their policies related to design.

United’s first attempt at developing a graphic identification was after the merger of Boeing Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, Varney Airlines and National Air Transport, when the airline introduced a bar-and-circle logo with the bar containing the words "United Airlines.”In 1936, United attempted to standardize its logo and adopted the shape of a heraldic shield as a symbol in red, white and blue, with “United” presented in a style of san-serif-italic typeface.

During the 1940s and 1950s, variations of the shield logo appeared; rearranging, skewing and stretching the logo in every which way.In the same time frame, United’s first slogan appeared: "The Main Line Airway," emphasizing its signature New York-Chicago-San Francisco route. Shortened to “Mainliner,” this term was later used to describe the period. In the early 1960s, the slanted spire, although not an official logo, appeared on United's aircraft tails, giving them a sense of modernity and replacing the shield.Additionally, the sans-serif typeface used for United's name was replaced by the more delicate Bookman. In 1965, the early slogan "The Main Line Airway" was replaced with "Fly the Friendly Skies," which would remain in place until 1996. By the early 1970s, the shield logo had disappeared, but without a new logo, United's identity became tied to its "Fly the Friendly Skies" slogan. United had attempted to incorporate a cohesive image several times, but none of them succeeded.

The first coherent branding initiative at United was Saul Bass' corporate identity program in 1973. What Saul Bass & Associates found at United was a non-structured identity system spread throughout the company.

This patchwork incoherently communicated United’s philosophy, internally and to the customers. The new service mark was comprised of a stylized red and blue "Double U" symbol as the visual focus and a custom logotype featuring modified Handel Gothic without serif letters to clearly identify the company by name. The selected colors were between the basic warm United Red in equilibrium with the cool United Blue. The famous Double U was later nicknamed "the tulip," which is unfortunate in that it disassociates the symbol with the “U” in United, reducing its positive brand equity. Saul Bass' branding was very successful in the way it unified United's image, especially in terms of logotype and the look of the aircraft. Additionally, Saul Bass' imposition of consistent design criteria to advertising and promotion campaigns is notable, as it frequently occurs the other way around. Other than the reintroduction of the word Airlines in 1979, this branding remained intact for the next 20 years.

A new identity program was ordered by Stephen Wolf in 1993 to give United a more conservative image to appeal to business travelers. Created by CKS Partners, the new identity retained the original Double U design by Saul Bass, but replaced the sans serif logotype with a more traditional serif face and introduced the color gray to project a more serious look to the blue and red. Widespread use of gray and blue pin striping was introduced in United’s livery and architectural environments. The CKS design established a comprehensive environmental identification system for United, rather than logo unification as was the case with the 1973 program. .

Although United was bought out by its employees in 1994, the new identity program was implemented and controlled by Stephen Wolf. This led to a lack of commitment to the imposed changes within the company and after Wolf left the company the new identity program remained confused

Yet another branding campaign was introduced in 1997, this one led by Pentagram Design. Pentagram updated the United logo by introducing new, cropped version of the Double U symbol, a bolder typeface for the company's name and dropping the word "Airlines" from the logotype. Akin to referring to the Double U as a tulip, cropping the service mark has potential negative consequences, as it reduces its brand equity and worldwide recognition.Could you imagine BMW refreshing their logo by cropping it? To distinguish different classes of service within the airline, United's name appears in black, while the name of the service appears in gray. Additionally, the "Fly the Friendly Skies" slogan was replaced with “It's time to fly.”

United introduced their most recent brand freshening in 2004, created by Fallon Worldwide. Marked by a new aircraft livery, the new identity was intended energize the brand as it failed to evolve with the market and fell into bankruptcy.

The new livery eliminated the gray and blue pin striping introduced in 1993, replacing it with a modified version of the 1997 cropped service mark on aircraft tails, while the logotype itself remained intact with the familiar Double U and its 68-degree tilt. While the new brand campaign was intended to forge an emotional connection with customers, it failed to illicit an emotional response. What was needed was not a new livery or marketing scheme, but a change in the corporate culture that transformed one of the most innovative airlines in the industry into one that was increasingly disconnected and arrogant. Once that change was complete and the customer’s trust restored, a celebration of the airline’s reinvigorated brand would be in order, not vice-versa.

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