United’s Brand Bruise – What to Learn?

I’ll admit it.  I’m a huge brand fan.  Maybe I’ve picked it up from reading too much from and about Warren Buffett, or maybe I’m weak and have succumb to the manipulation of our commercial culture following decades of being a U.S. consumer.  Regardless, I believe a brand is among the hardest things to create in business.  It can also be among the most valuable assets an organization has.  It would seem then, that a consumer brand is something organizations should protect and cherish with a lot of really high quality resources.  And while many organizations do, it’s still shocking how often it gets screwed up.  I suppose if it didn’t, many PR firms wouldn’t exist.

My first real comprehension of brand came during the Tylenol scare in 1982.  Yes, I was not only alive in 1982, I was in fact an impressionable teenager.  Very briefly, someone tampered with Tylenol bottles putting potassium cyanide capsules inside killing 7 people.  You can explore more here, there’s plenty to research if you’re interested.  Our family lived outside Chicago at the time, and these incidences all occurred in the Chicago area.  Johnson & Johnson ended up undertaking a nationwide recall.  At the time, this seemed to make sense to me.  People were dying, a company can’t take any chances.  But it also dawned on me that Tylenol had many products, and a strong reputation and that of course one should do everything they can to protect their reputation – or in this case – their brand.

Fast forward 35 years and recently a certain airline had an incident where a passenger was dragged off a flight.  I’m going to leave my own opinion aside of the incident and just focus on the brand handling.  United’s CEO has been soundly drubbed for his initial response.  And to me, it’s well deserved.  Their reputation was at stake.  While obviously so very different from the Tylenol incident, the core issue of a brand’s trusted relationship to it’s customers is still the same.  Trust was broken.  How you move to repair that trust matters – it impacts your brand – one of your most valuable assets.

I am positive many disagree with the above statement, but to me it’s glaringly obvious.  Let me illustrate with another example from the early 1990s.  Andy Grove, one of my all-time favorite strategic leaders, and arguably one of the greatest executives in modern U.S. business history, was dealing with an incredibly minor, nearly undetectable, glitch in the Intel 386 Pentium consumer PC chip.  You can read more detail in this excellent article about Grove, but suffice it to say, the uproar was much to do about nothing really.  But it was an uproar.  And it was gaining steam – fast.  At around the same time Intel had moved to its now famous “Intel Inside” marketing campaign.  A shift that put them squarely in the realm of a consumer brand.  So how did the business leader legend handle the situation?  He said:

“What we view as a minor technical problem has taken on a life of its own.  We apologize.  We were motivated by a belief that replacement is simply unnecessary for most people. We still feel that way.”

The classic non-apology apology.  Any of you who are married may be familiar with this.  “I’m sorry if me telling you that you’re brother is an idiot upset you…”  Grove basically told the public “we’re smarter than you, you don’t need this fixed, but since you won’t stop complaining, we’ll replace you’re damn chip if you want us to…”  Richard Tedlow, the author of the article referenced above, perfectly encapsulates my view of this oft misunderstood issue by tone deaf executives in these situations:  “In branding, a customer’s subjective reality, even if confused, becomes your objective reality.”  That’s about perfect.

So what can we learn from United Airline’s issue?  It doesn’t matter whose pilots were on the plane, whose crew was on the plane, whether procedures were or were not followed correctly – the passengers put their trust in UAL’s reputation and brand when they booked the flight through UAL, waited at a UAL gate, then boarded a plane with a UAL logo.  And whether the passenger was complicit, or obstinate, or proper procedure was followed, it was glaringly obvious what the average customers subjective reality was likely to be.  It was easily predictable.  So maybe what we’ve learned then is some people just don’t understand the relationship their brand has to the public.  And I get that.  But the CEO must understand their brand relationship – period.  If they don’t, that can be an expensive problem.  The damage control for UAL is ongoing.  It didn’t have to be that way.