Your brands in their hands

Two international airlines currently under public scrutiny show how vulnerable brands can be to the actions of

They are both American and to be honest the world hasn’t heard much about them since they were subjected to terrorist attack as part of 9/11. Since then, each airline has invested considerable time and effort in making themselves look different through brand identity redesign. Whether that rebranding involved any realignment of staff behaviours is not clear.

Now, within a couple of weeks of each other, both United and American Airlines have been accused of assaulting customers. This goes far beyond the ways in which brands usually let people down: product performance failure; broken promises, and failure to deal with customer complaints in a timely fashion. Causing physical injury to an elderly man in one case and a lady with a baby in another lends quite another meaning the phrase customer touchpoint.

The modern air travel experience is probably more stressful than it has ever been in the history of flight. Schedule delays, seat allocations, overbooking and bumping off. The ennui caused by repeated exposure to chicken and beef on the menu. All of this is now compounded by the threat of being terrorised by a Duty Free drunk or blown to pieces by a halfwit with a bomb.No surprise then, that airline cabin crew and passengers find themselves coming face to face every day in a highly charged atmosphere. And surrounded by people just itching to use their smartphones to film and broadcast very word, gesture or – heaven forbid – blow.

I think the statements made by the CEO of United Airlines significantly increased the damage his brand suffered. It’s good to support your staff in the execution of their duties. But where that execution exceeds the norms of civilised behaviour you should draw the line. And if you think this incident was an exception please think again. Every day I witness employee behaviours that are unacceptable. From ‘it’s not my problem’ to ‘I’m more afraid of my boss than I am interested in my customer’. I see it in banks, I hear it from mobile phone companies, I feel it in retail premises.

I’d also extend a general caution to all of us who carry smartphones. Most airlines now have legal protection (buried in their contractual rubric) against customers filming inside their aircraft and subsequently sharing that content. Other businesses are following, so the risk of litigation is growing.

Do also remember that filming an angry exchange also increases the stress levels of all involved and is unlikely to help matters.


Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside




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