How to Destroy a Brand in Two Minutes

By now the video of a distraught paid customer being violently dragged from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines plane has gone viral sparking widespread outrage. Furthermore, the response by United Airlines CEOOscar Munoz who found this abuse to be simply “upsetting” was also skewered and an example, according to CNN, of “how to make a PR crisis a total disaster.”

Ironically, PRWeek recently named Munoz Communicator of the year for 2017. Oops. Munoz, the magazine writes, “has shown himself to be a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications….”

Except in the case of this crisis. Crisis communicators will tell you that the tepid obfuscating statement that Munoz made was not the way to do it and the media has brought in experts in to weigh in on this.

What is not yet fully apparent is the extent of brand damage that this one incident will bring, further compounded by the CEO’s statement and ensuing silence.

So let’s talk about brands and branding. First, let’s see what United says. In its essence, United’s brand is: “Connecting People. Uniting the World.’’ It’s short, memorable and inspirational.

They then gush on: “Every day, we help unite the world by connecting people to the moments that matter most.” We’re veering in to greeting card territory here, but OK, all brands need emotion to get them going.

Munoz even weighs in: “I see our people going the extra mile for our customers and for one another…I see them strive to go beyond expectations and deliver a better experience for our customers with each flight.”

In its brand center, the airline also states: “The United brand vision is more than just words on paper. It is shaped by every aspect of our customer and co-worker experience.” (These kind of statements, by the way, are becoming rote and cringe-worthy. Its boilerplate language that everyone throws in. Eyes glaze over.)

United even makes a specific commitment to “treat passengers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales.”

Unfortunately, situations like this is when brands and branding (the signals sent to convey the brand), must come through loud and clear. And United failed completely. In one fell swoop, the brand has been undone. We’ve seen this with BP and more recently Wells Fargo. Will this be United’s undoing? I don’t know but I can say that in under 2 minutes they reduced their brand to words on paper and nothing more.

No one at the United desk at O’Hare last Sunday went the “extra mile.” Not one customer on that flight including the man dragged from his seat got delivered “a better experience.” The booted passenger was not treated fairly. United did not connect people “to the moments that matter most.” Instead, it disconnected them; it violated basic respect for human well-being by resorting to coercion and then violence.

Consumers are generally not happy with U.S carriers these days and they make it clear on social media. Overbooked flights, airline consolidation and cost cutting, not to mention throwing people off flights for “flying while Muslim” have left consumers unhappy a lot of the time. And they express this unabashedly on social media. I suspect that this has led to fatigue and hopelessness among the airline employees who deal daily with irate passengers and who have to bear the brunt of poor corporate policy made by higher-ups in their C-suites. I’m not making excuses for what happened but there are a lot of frayed nerves on the ground. And now, we live in a society where there is increasing disrespect for human lives and basic rights. What happened to simply treating people respectfully and kindly?

I don’t know what went wrong at the United desk at O’Hare on Sunday but there was a disconnect there from the United brand, and, subsequently, at the highest level of the company. The brand was not transmitted in the arena that mattered most. Everything that United says it stands for was destroyed in those two minutes when a customer was dragged off their plane. This satirical video on the incident using one of United’s own video ads verbatim goes to show just how hollow the brand now rings.

Whatever United says is irrelevant. It’s what they did and will now do that matters. And this is true for any company, non-profit, foundation or mom and pop business. The beauty of brands is that they live in the minds of the consumer. So make sure you always put your customers first and don’t violate your brand promise. If you do, admit your failure and do what it takes to make good.

It was likely a long journey to build the United brand. It will be an even longer one to rebuild it, to get the branding back on track, and to make sure every employee from top to bottom is infused with the brand promise and empowered in transmitting it correctly. Simply turning up the volume on Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, probably the most stirring American musical composition of the 20th Century, is not going to cut it.

Let us take heed from this sorry example.