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Monday, February 13, 2012

Eye of the Tiger

The Flying Tigers. These shark-faced fighters are still some of the most recognizable aircraft from World War II, but you may only have heard of them without really knowing who or what they were. The Flying Tigers were a crack group of warriors who prowled the skies over China, and they ripped the Japanese air corps a new one while America still licked its wounds from losses at Pearl Harbor.

In essence, they were the bad boys of World War II.

The official name of the Tigers was actually the 1st American Volunteer Group, or the AVG, and it was the brainchild of a gruff, hard-pressed bastard named Claire Chennault. He stomped around the military high command pressing for better aircraft. And history says he stepped on a lot of toes doing it. As a result, the Army asked him to resign in April of 1937. And when Chennault did the Chinese immediately asked him to assess their pitiful air force and strategy. Three months later, Japan invaded China, giving Chennault a lot to consider in his assessments.

By early 1941, Chennault had a solution and, more importantly, the funding to execute it—which was an instant air force, made up of better American aircraft and professional American pilots. Some say that then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly endorsed the plan, although there is no official record. However, Chennault did manage to snatch a shipment of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks originally bound for Britain's Royal Air Force.

The P-40 was rugged plane with heavy armor and heavy machine guns. Think flying tank. The delicate balsa and tin Japanese aircraft were far more nimble, but the Tigers liked looking the enemy in the eye with head-on attacks, for which the P-40 was far superior.

Not only did Chennault scrounge planes, he was also granted official permission to recruit pilots and ground crew from U.S. forces. That was Channault's fast-track-methodology to build an experienced fighter group—cherry-picking American volunteers. He secured 99 pilots and about 200 ground and administrative personnel. And he paid them very well—triple what the pilots and crews normally got as GIs.

Some called the AVG mercenaries because of their pay. Or maybe they were just really well rewarded for having the cajones to take on what was considered a highly trained and battle-experienced Japanese air force. Remember that those planes with the red dot shot everything out of the Asian skies they came up against. 

Most of the AVG organizational build took place in the first nine months of 1941. You don't just set up shop in a few weeks, especially in Burma. But by December of '41, the Tigers leapt into the skies. It was just two weeks after Pearl Harbor when they started hunting on 20 December 1941. The Flying Tigers pounced into action against ten Japanese bombers heading for a place called Kunming in southwestern China. This seemingly unknown place was the eastern terminus of the Burma Road. And the Burma Road was the sole and vital supply route for military supplies to southern China. The Japanese wanted it gone.

What the Japanese didn't know was that two squadrons of Curtiss P-40s had been stationed at Kunming. They bore the 12-pointed Chinese star on their wings and the now distinctive red-and-white shark’s teeth markings around their air scoops on the nose. The P-40 was perfect for exactly that kind of nose-art.

Just as the bombers came in for a run, four P-40s attacked. Startled by the unexpected resistance, the Japanese literally turned tail and flew for home—right into a waiting pack of ten more Flying Tigers. The fighters tore through the bomber formation, knocking down three aircraft and severely wounding one more. 

This is called a blood Chit
and was carried by the AVG.
It reads, "This foreign person
has come to China to help in
the war effort. Soldiers and
civilians, one and all, should
rescue and protect him."
Three days later, the AVG engage the Japanese again, this time racking up 11 confirmed kills with five probables. Just two days after that on Christmas Day 1941, the Flying Tigers down an amazing 24 more Japanese aircraft. These were defensive actions. After the first of the year, 1942, the Tigers would go on the offensive and terrorize the Japanese for another seven months.

According to Chinese newspaper accounts of those early battles, "...these American volunteers fight like Tigers, Flying Tigers." Hence the squadron name. Now, wrapped up in the concept of the Tiger is a whole lot of Asian cultural equity. Specifically in Japan, the tiger is the symbol of the Samurai. The tiger also represents the virtue of courage. And if you really want to get deep, it also means revision, improvement, change, and the Zen good.

The original AVG Flying Tigers were only active for about 8-months, through July of 1942. At that point, the US Army Air Corps came in and absorbed the AVG. While the name continued on through the 23rd Fighter Group, later commanded by Chennault himself and with a few of the original AVG pilots, it carved out its own success record. However it was the tenacity of the original AVG that established the brand presence and expectation of the Flying Tigers.

Therefore, submitted for your approval...

1. Determine the most appropriate brand-positioning attribute.
The AVG were a group of hard-playing, hard fighting mavericks—the inglorious basterds of the air. One of the most famous was Greg "Pappy" Boyington, well known for being a scrapper, and for living hard. But in the air, he was even meaner. He would go on to form the famous Black Sheep squadron. 
2. Devise a distinctive way to articulate the brand position.

While these pilots were animals on the ground, in the air they were courageous and fierce warriors. They would gladly assault their foe in head-on attacks. forcing the Japanese to look the tiger in the eye.
Courageous and fierce like tigers.
3. Develop a focused brand personality that customers can use to recommend or introduce your company to others.
Thanks to the Chinese news accounts ... "The Flying Tigers"
4. Establish graphic standards.
Part One - The actual logo for the Flying Tigers was designed by Walt Disney, featuring a leaping tiger with small wings. In reality, the accepted popular look and feel was derived from the natural characteristics of the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk. The plane had the ideal nose cowling for painting a mouth full of teeth. This nose art was actually of a shark. But those teeth still lent themselves to the maw of a big cat and became synonymous with the Flying Tigers.
Part Two: The P-40 was simply a rugged, mean hunk of flying metal. It was heavily armored around the engine and cockpit. It also carried two .50 caliber nose guns along with two .303 cal guns in each wing. Quite frankly, it was just a brute.
5. Consistently and uniquely execute the branding program.
The proof was in the pudding with an 8-month record showing that the original AVG Flying Tigers were credited with destroying about 130 enemy aircraft. Losses amounted to only 14 AVG aircraft. This would be the inspiration when the AVG were rolled into the offical American forces in August of 1942.