United Airlines boycott highlights a deeper brand crisis

United Brand Boycott

Last week we shared a report on the impact of brand boycotts. The same day, United Airlines had a PR crisis unfold after they forcibly removed a paid-up passenger from their plane.

What impact is this latest boycott having on the United brand?

It was one of the biggest brand stories of the week. Since it broke, the chatter and disgust at the brand continues to grow. Numerous disturbing videos of Dr. David Dao continue to be broadcast and shared globally.

The attack on the United brand continues to grow. #BoycottUnited and #BoycottUnitedAirlines are among the hottest trending hashtags on social media. United’s hashtag #UnitedJourney has been hijacked by brand attackers as well as #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos being used to share memes such as “Board as a doctor, leave as a patient,” and “We put the hospital in hospitality.”

On Chinese social sites, the boycott is one of the biggest stories. In China and across Asia, feel the airline had an ethnic bias against the passenger. Some are also suggesting the Chinese boycott could also have the potential to damage international relations.

Several videos have surfaced as social influencers and wannabes scramble to get on the bandwagon. Below is a selection of some of the better ones.

The damage to the brand is hard to quantify at this stage. While some claim, this will blow over in the coming weeks or months, the company’s stock price has already take a $US billion hit. The Brand Boycott report from YouGov suggests that brands can lose up to a fifth of their audience after a boycott and many won’t come back.

Unfortunately for United, this is just another day at the office. The brand has a strong history of moving from one PR crisis to the next. The airline was made famous for breaking guitars in 2008. In January 2016, Bloomberg reported on “United’s Quest to Be Less Awful” but here we are again.

It’s possible that the airline has long most passengers who are likely to boycott a brand. However, this might be the last straw for others.

United are one of the biggest airlines and some say they are too big to fail. After all, price and availability is a major driver for customer choice. United dominates many routes and can slash prices in the short-term to stay alive. But how willing are customers to forgive?

The airline was slow to apologise and the initial response was largely defensive and dismissive. After it was clear that brand’s reputation had been severely damaged, United CEO Oscar Munoz finally made a more empathetic statement.

“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened,” he said. “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Once again, it’s clear this is not just a policy issue but a huge cultural issue with the airline and how it views its customers. Clearly crew come first and there is very little empathy for their customers.

Munoz has now committed to ‘fix what’s broken’, ensure it never happens again and publicly share the findings by the end of the month. “This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivising volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”

This is an important starting point but it’s not enough.

The brand needs to be rebuilt from the inside out with the customer at the heart of the brand proposition. “Fly the friendly skies” has clearly never been believed and can’t be communicated. There is urgent need for a powerful and meaningful brand mantra to reinvigorate and save the brand.

Michael Hughes

Michael is Managing Partner and Strategy Director at Truly Deeply, a brand agency with 25 years’ experience working with brands to position them for growth. His deep expertise is in unlocking the strategic power of your brand to create a differentiated, compelling and authentic brand proposition that will engage all your audiences. Michael has extensive experience working across Australia and the Middle East working with leading Australian and International organisations across just about every sector.

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