Pan Am Brand Hopes to Become a Highflier Again

Two Decades After It Left the Scene as a National Player, Iconic Airline Aims to Recapture Romance of the Jet Age

By Published on .

Christina Ricci
Christina Ricci

It's tough enough to revive an existing brand. So imagine trying to breathe life into one that largely disappeared 20 years ago.

Pan Am, the once iconic airline of the skies, is set for a brand revival as it's featured on an upcoming fall TV show. Come September, ABC will air "Pan Am," centered on Pan American World Airways, circa 1963. The main characters will be pilots and flight attendants played by a cast that includes Christina Ricci.

Pan Am Systems of Dover New Hampshire is the business backer behind Pan Am's appearance in the new show. The company, which operates railways based in New England (known as Pan Am Railways), used to be known as Guilford Transportation Industries before buying Pan Am out of bankruptcy in 1998.

The intention was always to start the airline up again, said Stacy Beck, director-marketing and corporate development of Pan Am Brands, but tough times forced the company to abandon those plans in 2008 (Pan Am flew local East Coast routes for a decade ending in 2008). In November, Pan American Airways said it would provide cargo air travel from Brownsville, Texas, to cities in Mexico through a deal with shipping firm WorldWide Logisitics. The new Pan Am hopes to offer passenger service throughout Latin American cities in 2012.

Pan Am isn't the only historic brand to have an upcoming TV show. NBC will air the drama "Playboy Club," also set in 1963. But for Pan Am, the use of the brand for the show's title may make it one of the first in recent memory -- if not ever -- to take what was essentially a dead brand and revive it.

Pan Am "was timeless, innovative, stylish," said Ms. Beck. Older generations "find it nostalgic. They actually remember Pan Am and flying on Pan Am. It was a time we got dressed up to fly and the journey was just as much an adventure as the destination." Younger folks find the name "retro" and cool, she suggested.

She declined to comment on the worth of the Pan Am brand or on the licensing revenue the company would be getting from the ABC program. But there clearly is revenue: Pan Am sells travel bags and other accessories. The company expects new merchandise -- sold separately under the aegis of Sony, the producer of the ABC program -- to come on the market if the ABC program fares well, but those materials will be part of the license Pan Am Systems has granted Sony.

The show has already drawn comparisons to AMC's "Mad Men," because it, too, coats the "60s with a glamorous sheen. "There's nothing glamorous about air travel anymore, but [there's] a romantic view still attached to the Pan Am name," said Carol Phillips, president at Brand Amplitude.

Of course, just because someone remembers the Pan Am brand doesn't mean they'll feel affection for it now. "They might even think [the show's] contrived," said Michael Stone, CEO of Omnicom-owned Beanstalk Group, a licensing and branding agency. "So the question is , will it be too contrived, or will the story lines be interesting and dynamic enough to attract a broad audience?"

Today's Pan Am is fierce about protecting yesterday's brand, said Ms. Beck. The company was approached by TV producer Nancy Holt Ganis -- a former Pan Am stewardess herself -- about the program in 2008, but wrangled for several years to make certain the show would bolster what the company thinks Pan Am should stand for.

"We are very, very protective of our marks," Ms. Beck said, "and were just making sure that the brand was protected and that Nancy would tell the story properly."

Licensing a brand is "almost the purest assessment of the value of a brand," said Ms. Phillips. "The fact that someone is willing to pay for the brand suggests that it has life left in it."

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