First Make It Work, Then Rebrand It


Usually when companies merge, they get right to work on rebranding. In the case of airlines, the combined entity’s new logo quickly finds its way onto repainted planes, restyled uniforms, and fresh airport signage. But after Avianca and TACA merged—each with its own rich heritage, culture, and business—we took our time. In fact, we waited more than three years to put a new face on the company.

We knew why we wanted to bring the operations together and that doing so gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My dream was to create a truly pan–Latin American airline. But I also knew that I envisioned something very different from what we actually were in the days immediately following the merger.

We decided to unify the vision, culture, and operations of the two organizations prior to launching a single brand. It was a difficult decision; another leader might well have believed that a new, aspirational identity would help the integration along. But we wanted to launch with complete credibility; we did not want our branding to strike customers as a mismatch with what they actually experienced. Even more important, I wanted our 18,000 employees to get beyond their differing backgrounds and the separate cultures represented in the new Avianca and feel part of one “multi-Latina” family. Yes, the decision to merge was a strategic one, but I knew that making it work was a human challenge.

The transformation had to occur on many levels. We changed the management and organizational structures, looking to meld the cultures. We streamlined our fleet from nine to only four aircraft families and reconfigured our combined route network and hubs. We unified our technology platforms to integrate operational, commercial, and service information in one system. We redesigned processes for safety, planning, human resources, finance, legal, sales, marketing, and more.

We did not want our branding to strike customers as a mismatch with what they actually experienced.

Twice we postponed the launch of our new visual identity. That is how strongly I felt that unification had to be complete inside the building, so to speak, before it was reflected on the sign out front.

We had some bad days along the way, but also days of great progress—such as when we went through the process of joining Star Alliance, the largest global airline network in terms of members, daily flights, and benefits to travelers. The effort demanded immense preparation and compliance with a multitude of administrative, operational, commercial, and service requirements. Our ability to work as one team was tested—and proved with enthusiasm, conviction, and commitment.

Only after the potential of the merger began to be realized did we turn to visual rebranding. Working closely with our strategic and design partner, Lippincott, we combined elements from Avianca’s and TACA’s heritage into a symbol that conveys forward movement. We think it represents the new company’s ability to bring the best of Latin America to the world.

The rebranding delay had short-term implications for the bottom line: For three years we had to divide our marketing investments between very distinct brands. But I have no doubt that we made the right decision. As for other companies facing rebranding? My advice is to always move quickly but never rush—there’s a big difference. Choose partners who understand the deep transformation you aim to accomplish. And although it goes without saying that your branding conveys meaning externally, know that it means even more internally. It’s wonderful to trumpet the promise of a new combination—and even better when that promise is already reality.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review.


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