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 | April 14, 2017

A Lesson in Branding from United Airlines

posted by , Rob McCarty

PEPSI: We made the biggest PR blunder of any major company this year. United: Hold my beer.

Unless you've been living under a rock, then you're well-aware of the United Airlines disaster that went down on Sunday, April 9 in Chicago. Honestly, the word "disaster" is describing it lightly, as this was an all-around debacle on so many levels.

Of course, there's some debate out there about whether or not the actions of the air marshals that day were precedented or not. I whole-heartedly believe that this incident was totally unacceptable, but regardless of your opinion of the situation, you cannot deny that the way the United Airlines crew handled the situation has caused total and utter destruction of the United brand—and will continue to do so.

"Fly the Friendly Skies"... really?

In 1965, United Airlines introduced their tagline "Fly the Friendly Skies." This is a statement that's stuck with folks over the years. Seemingly simple on the surface, what United seems not to understand is that a tagline isn't something to be taken lightly—it is a promise to your customers. The moment you release your brand promise to the public, you're committed to it for life... there is no turning back. And the minute you break that promise, you can kiss your brand's reputation goodbye. And, in this case, about $1 billion in stocks within just a few days.

The moment United's air marshals decided to forcibly and violently remove David Dao from his seat, the public could no longer believe United's sincerity in communicating "Fly the Friendly Skies."

Your "United Customer Commitment" Should Exist Outside of Your Website

Take a look at the opening two paragraphs of United's Customer Commitment:

United Airlines Customer Commitment

"Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers." Do you think the United crew remained mindful of this customer commitment in this scenario? Clearly not.

Your company's commitment to your customers is more than just a statement that lives on your website; it must be understood and upheld by each and every member of your team. As a marketer, brand manager, CEO, etc., you are responsible for ensuring every team member understands your true commitments and has the capacity to fulfill these promises every minute of every day on the job. Of course, we acknowledge that this gets more and more difficult the larger your team becomes, but that's also when upholding these commitments becomes even more important.

Investing the time, energy and money into a thorough, high-quality training program is absolutely worth it—which is clear in the case of United Airlines.

So... What Could United Have Done Instead?

Again, whether or not you agree with the actions taken by the United crew that day, you cannot disagree with these actions going against their brand promise and customer commitment—both which should be at the forefront of every United crew member's line of thinking and decision making. During every customer interaction, their crew should be asking themselves, "How am I making this a positive experience for this customer?"

Now, nobody is thrilled about being asked to leave a flight, but there are ways to make it as positive of an outcome as possible—definitely not including forcibly removing a passenger from the aircraft.

Corrective actions United Airlines could've taken include:

  • The most obvious alternative—offering Dao more money in vouchers above the federal minimum to give up his seat. Everyone has a price point, and the price of that voucher would undoubtedly be less of a detriment to United than the loss of investments and future customers.
  • Ask for another volunteer to give up their seat, since Dao clearly did not want to get off the plane. 

Not only would these actions have been less damaging to the company's wallet and reputation, they also would have been much more aligned with their customer promise to make every flight a positive experience for their customers.

Your Brand = Your Reputation

United Airlines will never be able to go back in time and change the outcome on that flight. They also can't go back in time and "unleak" the email to employees from CEO Oscar Muñoz (another example of United's miscommunication and failure to uphold brand promise following this event)—but they can (and downright have to if they want a chance of repairing their reputation) make some serious changes to their policies and procedures moving forward.

When it comes down to it, the one-on-one interactions your brand has with your customers are much more significant than your brand on a macro level. All of the positive experiences United's customers may have had over the last 90 years or so have now become irrelevant to the public after this one incident.

What takes years to strengthen and build from the ground-up can be taken away in mere seconds. Learn this lesson from United Airlines—it always pays off to do whatever you need to do to uphold your brand promise.