It takes years to make someone fall in love with a brand – and seconds to make them hate it

United Airlines will be a case study down the ages of what happens when bad culture creates brand behaviour, argues Mumbrella's Tim Burrowes.

Until Sunday night, I had no strong feelings about United Airlines.

Why would I? Living in Australia, I’ve never flown with them.

And yet I’m now certain that there are no circumstance in which I’d consider flying with them, even if they offered the cheapest flights from Australia to the US. And I suspect that applies to customers from around the world too.

Their two brand attributes that will be on the top of my mind are that, firstly, United routinely overbooks, so getting to your destination will be a lottery. And, secondly, they treat their paying passengers with contempt. Like millions of people around the world, that will always be lodged in the back of my mind now.

I first watched the now infamous video when it hit the top of Reddit on Sunday night.

Framed as security thugs throwing a doctor off a plane – because he wouldn’t give up the seat he’d paid for to airline staff as he had patients to treat at the other end –  it made me viscerally angry. And thousands of other Reddit commentators too.

By the next morning, Australian time, it was everywhere, and United had blown it in the one tiny window they had.

It was all I saw in my Facebook feed, the most viral thing I’ve seen since, well, Jacketgate.

Much like Pepsi’s disaster with Kendall Jenner last week, my jaw dropped on how so many  communications professionals got it wrong.

In the initial stages, when the first damaging video appeared on Twitter, the immediate response from the airline was to effectively blame the passenger.

In a two-part tweet, “MD”, the person on United’s Twitter account responded to the video with the message “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave… the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.”

Even without accepting blame, regret at the passenger’s injuries could easily have been expressed. Not to mention regret at overbooking the flight.

And this wasn’t an off-the-cuff response. The team responsible for the account had had time to find out what happened, view the video, and still not understand how it would look to the public.

A few hours later, Oscar Munoz, the airline’s CEO had issued his own first, tone-deaf statement.

Ironically just a month ago, Munoz had been named communicator of the year by PR Week.

Within a fortnight of that award, United was making global headlines after reportedly refusing to allow teenagers to board because they were wearing leggings.

I note that overnight the editor of PR Week Steve Barrett has conceded:

“The incident has shed much light on our choice of the United CEO as Communicator of the Year at the PRWeek Awards last month. It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”

In the above tweet from Munoz, there was still no acknowledgement of the airline’s contribution to the incident – but it did showcase the airline’s differing world view to that of its potential customers.

It was now clear clear that United sees overbooking as a fact of life that isn’t to be apologised for. And in airline economics, it is a fact of life, particularly in the US.

It’s not uncommon for ticket-holding passengers to be denied boarding because the most financially effective model is to overbook and hope that somebody doesn’t turn up.

The airlines know this, but as United demonstrated in its response, it doesn’t understand that just because the conditions of carriage allow it, it doesn’t mean the public are okay with it. They foolishly think that if they buy a ticket they should be able to make the trip.

And as the hours ticked by, United failed to get in front of the story while the headlines – and memes – got worse.

Jimmy Kimmel’s “Honest United commercial”, has already had more than one million views on YouTube and been replayed endlessly on other TV shows.

Twitter had its own fun. Of course.

What were the actual facts? Was it true that this man was a doctor? Was it true he told fellow passengers he had to treat patients in the morning? And if he did, was that actually true, or was he fibbing to try to keep his seat?

Whatever the truth, the doctor-being-bumped narrative went virtually unchallenged.

If it was true, the airline’s PR professionals should have been screaming for it to unconditionally apologise for what happened.

If it wasn’t, they needed to get that out there. Behind the scenes, they dithered. And then they doubled down, emailing staff, in a memo which obviously leaked. It was the passenger’s fault. Instead Munoz told staff “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” Whatever that means.

Meanwhile, another element of the story the airline had complete control over also didn’t get out there properly either.

It was being widely reported that the passengers were being bumped because four off-duty staff wanted the seats.

It smacked of arrogant staff favouring their mates over the customers.

The airline failed to vigorously correct the record that they were staff who were needed as crew on another flight, and if they didn’t get there, hundreds more would be inconvenienced.

It was the same in the leggings incident a few weeks before – by the time the airline revealed that the travellers were relatives of staff flying for free and held to higher dress standards than paying customers, the narrative had escaped.

But of course, by then it was probably too late anyway. Because of the video. From now on, every incident will see video emerge. And that changes the game for issues management.

United, of all brands, should be aware of the dangers of viral video.

United Breaks Guitars was one of the first brand protest videos to go viral. It was created in 2009 after a musician witnessed staff manhandling his instrument and the airline refused to do anything to make it right.

Nearly 17m views and a decade later it still haunts United.

Bu the social game has even changed since then. Where you have hours to formulate a response, you now have minutes. And in something like this, minutes become seconds.

In those few seconds of watching that video, millions of people around the world – who could all visualise themselves being that passenger – began to hate United.

This morning, Australian time, United tried for a fourth time, after its share price began to crash, wiping a quarter of a billion dollars off its market capitalisation as a boycott loomed.

Two-and-a-half-days after its crisis began, it finally began to hit the right tone – probably much too late.

Today’s belated apology from United boss Munoz

I suspect that few people will believe the sentiments, given the previous messages.

Brand love takes much longer.

If I had to pick a brand that I love, Qantas would be in my top 10. Top three, actually. Like a lot of Australians, if the surveys are to be believed – more than Vegemite, apparently.

But that’s been built up over  hundreds of brand experiences, advertising messages and news stories.

That cumulative effect of all of the positive experiences, brand messages and news stories means that like many Australians, when I think of Qantas, I think of things like safety, and of going home. I don’t generally think of overbooking and violence.

And of course, what you don’t think of is all the times Qantas did not blow the big calls.

You don’t get much credit for the mistake you didn’t make, but it does avert the sudden onset of brand hate.

Remember QF32 – which nearly became Qantas’s first lost plane when the Rolls Royce engine blew up in 2010 as it climbed out of Singapore?

It’s well known that it was the airline’s finest hour in terms of airmanship, but there were decisive leadership decisions on the ground too – before the facts were known.

CEO Alan Joyce had one hour to decide what do to, as the airline’s other 11 A380s were lining up to take off at various points around the world.

While United would still have been writing non-committal tweets, Qantas had grounded its entire A380 fleet until the engine problem could be understood. That was gutsy, given the disruption it cased. But later it proved to be correct.

Other airlines kept flying their A380s, and later it proved to be a systematic fault inside the engine that had to be corrected worldwide.

Culture creates actions, and action creates reputations.

Years later, I was onboard a Qantas A380 flight captained by Richard de Crespigny, the man who had led the QF32 crew that day.

During the flight, he toured the cabin, explaining the workings of the plane to a woman who was scared of flying, and happy to chat to anybody who worked out who he was.

Famously, when he landed the stricken QF32, he gave all the passengers his mobile number in case anybody wasn’t properly looked after.

It’s culture. The difference between United and Qantas as airline brands is cultural. PR and communications can only go so far.

In United culture, you have a captain who authorises a paying passenger being taken off by force – and a communications team who think the problem was that he wouldn’t get off.

In Qantas culture you have a captain who spends his flight break talking to passengers who are scared of flying. That’s PR.

Communicators of the year? If I was the PRWeek jury, I’d be asking to do a recount.


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