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01 December 2008

Tailfin-in-the-sea syndrome


Corporate identity is not what it once was. Having a perfectly designed logo that expressed everything a business stood for has become less important in the last two decades.

The explosion in the number of such symbols during the 70s and 80s made it harder for any one symbol to get traction. Then the constant merging and renaming of businesses made mockery of symbols that take many years to enter the collective subconscious.

In the e-comms era, how your business behaves and what it says about itself has become far more important than how it looks. News of bad behaviour can become the subject of global e-gossip within hours. Managing this is far more important than trying to control how others might use or misuse your prized image.

The one place where visual identity remains important -- apart from the world of consumer product branding -- is in the air travel business. But the airlines must be finally wondering the wisdom of that.

For many years, it’s been known as the tailfin-in-the-sea syndrome: The powerful image of an airline logo poking out of the sea while emergency services desperately try and recover bodies and flight data recorders.

Pity Air New Zealand that has just lost an Airbus A320 in the Mediterranean off the coast of France. Although it was undergoing airworthiness trials before being returned to AirNZ service after being leased for two years to German charter airline XL Airways, it’s an AirNZ koru logo than can be seen below the waves.

As British writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams said in the The Independent back in 2001,  the effectiveness of an identity depends not simply on how often we see it, but on how often we see it in a positive context.

“The familiar symbols of banks and shops on high streets throughout the land reinforce our feeling that we are where we belong, and that those companies belong there too. But one negative image has the power to undo in an instant all the quiet work of building a positive association. The media's instinct for the familiar symbol amid the wreckage is unerring, even if the wreckage is no more than metaphorical.”

Some media commentators have said AirNZ won’t suffer any customer fall-out from the crash, because the plane was still under lease to another airline and piloted by that airline’s crew. WHAM will be pleasantly surprised if that proves to be the case, but for the meantime there’s a strong case for removing the logo from tailplane liveries.

The positives derived from seeing the koru logo from afar must be a minor part of the marketing mix, compared with the lasting negative images of seeing it below the waves near France or, for that matter, on the snows of Mt Erebus.


Since posting this story, Air New Zealand has shown superb skills with its handling of the human dimension surrounding the loss of the Airbus crew. The  minute of silence for all staff wherever they were working, the presence of the chief executive on the beach in France for days on end, the French media advertisements thanking locals for their support, the hosting of grieving families, the service and haka on the beach ... None of it looked forced or contrived. Air NZ looked every bit a caring and highly professional company.

All involved should feel very proud of a job well done.

- Trevor Walton

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