Failed Customer Centricity and a Brand Implosion: United Airlines


Like many of you I am horrified by what we all witnessed as social media exposed United Airline’s practices run amok this past Monday.  As a year-over-year 1K nearly 2-million mile United customer, I am deeply disturbed and seriously reconsidering the value of that loyalty.  One is often judged by the company they keep, and while that alone never drives my decisions, I do find it a good deal more difficult today to defend my choice of airline than I did a week ago.  And that got me thinking.

If I were the head of Customer Engagement & Retention or the “Chief Customer Officer” at United, what would I have done, immediately?

Here are two (2) things that come to mind that should’ve been done at the very latest by today, Saturday the 15th of April (and as of this post on Saturday of the Easter holiday weekend, nothing approaching either has happened):

  1. Every United Mileage Plus Member would have received the following eMail from CEO Munoz.
  2. A full-page paid advertisement very similar to one like this one here would have run in the Top 10 US Daily Newspapers.

"Why a full-page Ad," you ask? Because the brand needs to send a message that this issue is important enough to purchase a full-page space to convey sincere thoughts.

Let’s be clear, the United Airlines brand is in critical condition—nearly on life-support. But there is no indication in the hubris seeping out of every public gesture made so far, that UAL executives understand this.

  • Refunding those FLT 3411 customers who had to witness this? No-brainer and not enough.
  • Deciding that employees need to book 24-hours in advance and cannot displace a seated customer? No-brainer and not enough.

To be sure, customer relationship management is brand management. 

And their brand image is now customer Dr. Dao being mercilessly bloodily dragged down the plane's main cabin aisle.  Presumably, at some point this customer will own at least an airplane before this is legally settled. 

But legally resolving this and activating an army of PR crisis managers to attempt to convince people to “keep calm and fly on” will merely episodically band aid another unfortunate brand diminishing event. However, this event presents a nearly existential threat to the United Airlines brand, which is anything butflying the friendly skies” at the moment.

I’ll have more to say about brand triage shortly, and some thoughts about how United needs to evolve the customer experience in the purchase process for improved transparency.

If I seem a bit perturbed by this, you bet I am.  Actually I am damn angry that its been five (5) days, and none of us, save those on that fateful Flight 3411, have been contacted by United to offer an apology and reassure us before we make another purchase.  And nothing has even been done on their web site when I log in, where instead of trying to sell me an expensive credit card, there should be a link to “An important message from our CEO” in its place. But no, because everything is so overly focused on revenue it’s clear this brand is not customer-centric, it’s at best attempting to be “customer-focused.”