United Airlines… It Could Have Been Me or You.

When a brand has a problem, and all brands do at some point or another, people process the nature of the flaw differently. If it touches them… they react very personally. Key media platforms, like YouTube, feed this beast and all of a sudden a brand has a real problem.

Brands that have critical “flaws” that don’t directly touch us are not quickly damaged. For example, when VW misled us about their reporting incorrect MPG information, we read it as a corporate flaw. This was viewed as more distant, it remotely touched each of us, and then we moved on. Most people didn’t attach any fundamental connection to the issue, so they tuned out. Sure, the situation has been an on-going nightmare for VW causing management firings and re-alignments, but from an immediacy standpoint, it is perceived to be a somewhat distant issue. So the brand damage has been significantly less than if the issue had touched us directly.

But security personnel dragging a passenger off a United plane in Chicago is different. It touches us because it could have been us. For those of us who fly a lot, on planes that are generally full, the idea of having to give up a seat and take another flight becomes a personal decision. Most business people are on very tight schedules, and don’t have the time or patience to wait. Add to that the motive was United’s business, not the passengers, and we become outraged for good reason. The United brand has been damaged.

What if you were told your seat was not available? That alone would be a problem. But take it to the extreme, what if you were dragged off a flight (not politely asked and escorted)? Now that touches me on a very personal level. We can imagine ourselves in that circumstance.

From a brand management standpoint, these types of flaws must be addressed differently. When an issue touches consumers as individuals, it becomes critical to step up and address the public head-on and immediately. Delays in communicating only signal that the corporation (brand) is not prioritizing us, but focused on protecting itself. Today, consumers are very sensitized to these cues.

Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, lost sight of this. His first instincts ignored the critical relationship the United brand has to its passengers. It took him a day or two to recover. But a lot of damage has been done.

The good news is that he did, relatively quickly, recognize what was at stake. Let’s hope passengers and the media cut him some slack. He finally “embraced” how his consumers felt about his brand. In our opinion, he stemmed what could have been an even worse situation. Now he must build back the positive brand equity that was lost. This requires; fixing the problem, communicating to all of us how will never happen again, and then speaking to us with conviction that he (the United brand) understands us. His tone better be empathetic and not corporate, or we will put United even further down our list of preferred airlines.