How to Rebuild a Broken Brand

Lessons from United’s Brand Crisis

It happened so fast you could almost hear the snap as the brand broke. The blood gushed down the man’s almost-unconscious face as people around him screamed in protest and horror.

The literal manhandling of the United flight 3411 passenger on April 9 became breaking news in seconds, but the United brand had become all too brittle well before then. As a Gold and Platinum MileagePlus member, I had felt the dark chains of the airline’s loyalty program. At the time, I held a job that required a good deal of travel to Africa and the Middle East, and most of my colleagues recommended the reach of the Star Alliance network. But I quickly learned how little United valued the business it got from anyone but 1K and Global Services customers. Compared to other network airlines, like Turkish or Lufthansa, the airline’s service was meagre on a good day and (as witnessed) atrocious on a bad one. While I had never witnessed a customer being dragged from their seat, I had certainly seen my fair share of customers bullied off overbooked flights.

Of course, in that sense, it was a miracle that the airline had managed to make it so long without a brand crisis. Having undergone a grueling merger with Continental, both the brand and its personnel have suffered the adverse effects of expanding geographic reach, staff turnover, and bankrupt corporate values. Does United even have a mission beyond its quest to nickel and dime its customers? An acquaintance recently reflected on a casual conversation with a United pilot at a family Easter dinner who, a week after the incident, reported that he didn’t understand why everyone was making such a big deal about it.

In the aftermath, United is trying every price-based marketing trick in the book to win back customers, including bargain “apology” fares to Europe and Mexico. The airline has also announced changes to “improve customer experience” which include “limiting the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only,” not requiring customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless “safety or security is at risk,” and increasing customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000. They will “establish a customer solutions team” and “provide employees with additional annual training,” among other things. What the airline doesn’t seem to realize is their problem isn’t something they can paper over with a PR announcement. Their brand is broken, and customers are unlikely to forgive them until they fix it.

How Do Brands Break?

Why do things break? They break because the burden gets too high, or because the rules change. Sometimes they break because someone changes the rules of the game without the players even realizing. Most importantly, perhaps, relationships break when we lose trust in each other.

Of course, brands can break, too. Sometimes a brand’s true purpose diverges from its past identity without the brand keeping up. Other times, brand stewards (like those at United) allow the brand values to atrophy to the point where the brand stands for nothing, except profit, making it susceptible to human wreckage. Still other times, some brands fail to uphold their brand promise enough times they lose the trust of their audience, despite their best efforts.

When this happens, whatever the cause, audiences and stakeholders lose trust in the brands they once believed in. They can’t trust the brand to uphold its brand promise. Sometimes this isn’t even the brand’s fault. Sometimes it happens because of unforeseen changes in the political or social environment. Still, the brand carries the blame.

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”

Brands often exercise the equivalent of insanity by continuing to do the same things that have broken their brands in the first place. As with most things, fixing a broken branch means making a concerted effort to do things differently, to see the world differently than you had in the past.

When a brand breaks, going back to the way things were before won’t fix it. This is like trying to rebuild on top of the rubble of a collapsed house. Rebuilding a broken brand means actively asking for forgiveness, apologizing sincerely, and demonstrating a willingness to atone for past sins. Oscar Munoz’ apology is a good start, but this only amounts to clearing away the wreckage to create space to build anew. For a brand as big as United, rebuilding a broken brand isn’t as simple as issuing a generic statement of “customer experience improvements” and then putting the planes back in the sky.

Having shown itself to be devoid of values or any commitment to its customer experience before, the brand stewards must redefine what the brand stands for, what it means to be a leading airline, to be charged with safeguarding human life at 30,000 feet above the ground just as much as at the gate.

How to Fix a Broken Brand

Too often, companies mistake “brand” for a name, logo, font, or color scheme. While these things are certainly important, they are almost entirely auxiliary to the fundamental truth that underlies the most successful brands. A strong and resilient brand is one built on shared purpose and a conviction of higher service, rather than the simple pursuit of profit.

So how do you fix a broken brand? Ideally, Munoz wouldn’t just hire an outside branding firm to gin up a new set of “corporate values” he can hand down from on high. (It’s likely just such a move, executed during the merger, is exactly what bankrupted the company’s morals to begin with).

Instead, rebuilding a broken brand starts with rebuilding trust. Brands that are broken have to demonstrate to their stakeholders that they’re good for their word. That they mean what they say. How a brand does this can be simple or complex. But usually it starts with a brand experience, an opening for its stakeholder to come together to understand how a brand plans on doing things differently to make good on it’s promise going forward.

Ideally, United would empower every employee to participate in redefining its identity. Using a process like human-centered design, a company can empower all of its employees, and even its customers, to co-create a shared values statement that will serve as a founding document for a new chapter in its history. By using a process that is inclusive and participatory, the brand stewards will ensure all their personnel throughout their entire fleet have a stake in upholding their universally shared beliefs. To go further, United could also include a range of customers who would represent the human experience of trusting your life to an airline.

Unlike polls and focus groups, using a co-creative method empowers people to not just respond to a pre-formed idea, but to contribute ideas and insights of their own. By subjecting their company to a human-centered process, United could open up the possibility of reinventing the customer experience, to fully understand what is important to everyone within its ecosystem, and in so doing, transform its level of service and customer loyalty.

By embracing the power of a mission-driven brand, United could begin to unlock their full brand potential, to uncover future returns they couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Previously published on Heptagon Productions.