This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
Depending on your point of view, the unveiling of a new corporate identity for British Airways in 1997 was one of the biggest rebranding failures of all time.
Or it was one of the unfairly maligned and misunderstood marketing campaigns that was way ahead of its time.
The aim of the rebranding by the design agency Newell & Sorrell was to not simply present a new livery for BA, but an entirely new BA as an airline of the world with a much softer, warmer, image.
The 1980s Landor livery, featuring its very precise Speedwing, quarter Union Jack, and BA’s coat of arms was replaced. The new livery featured a new logo with a three dimensional Speedmarque, in a brighter and lighter palette of red, white and blue and the name “British Airways” in a softer, rounder, typeface.
The “World Images” were designed by artists from around the world which would appear not only on aircraft tailfins, but also all company vehicles and stationery. This was a reflection of the fact that three of every five BA customers were based outside the UK.
15 designs were unveiled initially, with the aim of adding 12 each year until the millennium.
The unveiling of the new livery on 10 June 1997 was, it has to be said, an act of 1990s excess. BA, with the assistance of the BBC, held an outside broadcast from 25 locations around the world with the unveiling of aircraft by BA and its franchises and subsidiaries at locations such as Heathrow, Munich, Seattle and Victoria Falls. This was also supported by events such as fireworks at Sydney Harbour.
The unveiling of the new corporate identity was also supported by a new TV advertising campaign “The world is closer than you think.”
“Maggie Puts BA Into A Tailspin”
What happened next is well documented.
The former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took exception to the sight of a model BA aircraft at the 1997 Conservative Party conference and covered its tailfin with a handkerchief. “Maggie Puts BA Into A Tailspin” was the front page of the Daily Mail the following day. Virgin Atlantic painted the Union Jack and the decal “Britain’s Flag Carrier” on its aircraft.
BA’s initial response to negative criticism was to plan to paint half of the BA fleet in the Chatham Dockyard livery, before the project was abandoned entirely in 2001.
In many ways this project was ahead of its name. It was launched before galleries such as Tate Modern opened which, with the aid of installations such as Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” helped transform art from something that is displayed on a gallery wall to something that is experienced. A project of this nature today would of course be made for Instagram.
It is hard not to draw a parallel to the reaction the “World Images” tail fins in 1997 to contemporary politics. There is tension not just in the UK between those want nation states to assert their national identity and those who want to embrace and work a multi-lateral basis with other nation states.
The rebranding exercise has been largely airbrushed by BA from history. Unsurprisingly, there have been no retrospective World Images liveries for the centenary year.
May be one day the World Images tailfins will be given the full reappraisal it deserves.
The “World Images” Talfins
Here are a selection of the “World Images” designs and BA aircraft in World Images liveries: