Brand Reputation and United Airlines

5 October, 2019

Your branding is the most important part of your business—a great product or service won’t go far with terrible branding. Only rarely can a relatively new brand survive with bad branding.

Brand Reputation is how people perceive your brand. And building that reputation is an essentially part of the brand strategy of a business. That process is oftentimes a long and arduous. However, tarnishing that reputation can happen in the blink of an eye or at the post of a tweet.

The Case of United Airlines

United Airlines is perhaps the go-to case study for brand reputation, at least, as a case study of what not to do in terms of crisis response. And, unfortunately for the airline, they have a number of customer service mishaps that have negatively impacted their reputation.

Perhaps the most well-known incident for United Airlines, is the case that occurred in April 2017.

A passenger on a flight from Chicago O'Hare airport, Dr. David Dao, was removed from an overbooked flight by force. United needed four seats to accommodate four crew members who had to fly out the next morning. When no one willingly gave up their seat, they picked four people at random.

Dr. Dao was one of the people picked. However, he refused to disembark, stating that he had to be at the hospital in the morning. At his continued refusal, United Airlines instead called the police.

The video of a man, visibly bloodied, being dragged from the aircraft as passengers cried out in horror, went viral quickly.

However, United’s crisis response leaves much to be desired.

Crisis Response

Their response was slow and, as some pointed out, missed the point of why the video went viral. When asked for comment, they instead decided to focus on how the flight was overbooked instead and stated, “We apologize for the overbook situation.”

But people weren’t reacting with outrage at the fact that the flight was overbooked. United’s team failed to see this and didn’t address it.

The reaction of United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, where he merely stated, that he apologized “for having to re-accommodate these customers,” was also not what the public wanted to hear.

What they wanted was for the airline to apologize for the treatment of Dr. Dao, for letting the situation to go out of hand, and for treating a paying passenger this way for a problem that was the airline’s fault in the first place—overbooking.

Customer sentiment for the brand took a steep dive thanks to this incident. And the airline basically became the world’s most hated airline in one day. Morning Consult, a brand tracking company, announced that after the dragging video went viral, United suffered a 47-point loss.

Another Blow to Brand Reputation

It took a year for United’s brand to bounce back. They had a spike in their reputation due to their announcement that they will be ending their partnership with the National Rifle Association (NRA).

However, in true United fashion, on March 2018, they went viral for the wrong reasons. Again.

This time, a passenger’s dog died after a flight attendant told the passenger to place the flight-approved bag containing the dog into the overhead compartment. 3.5 hours later, to the distress of the passenger and her whole family, they found that their dog had died.

United’s crisis response this time was quick, however, this time admitting to their mistake. But the incident in 2017 was still fresh in people’s mind. Social media listening tool, Digimind found that negative sentiment for the airline increased by 140% in one day.

Lessons to Learn

So, what are some of the lessons that we can learn from United Airlines’ experiences?

Fast Response
If a story that damages your brand’s reputation goes viral, you need to mitigate the damage. Do this as quickly as possible. Like any case of customer complaint, the customer is unwilling to wait for very long for your reaction.

Customer-First Perspective
Think things over in the perspective of the customer. After an incident, the customer is probably upset. A polite and empathetic response is key to the customer and to the public is vital. Also, make sure that any internal memo you may have uses this point of view.

Ready Your PR Team
During a crisis, your PR team should be ready to plan everything. They should be aware of the following: what the problem is, what needs to be addressed, what statement needs to be written, and how to prevent the situation from getting worse. Also, prepare statement for the person in charge, such as the company’s CEO.

Avoid Emotional Reactions
Be sure to avoid any reaction that may be considered knee-jerk. Filing for legal actions or immediately resorting to calling the authorities should be avoided unless it’s absolutely vital. If legal actions are really necessary, then see number 3 on this list.

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Copyright ©2020. Crubiks Inc. All Rights Reserved
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