How to commit PR and brand suicide, United Airlines style.  A look at what should have been done.

All too often, companies launch, succeed and then fail because they lack a clear brand strategy. Whether it is through lack of sufficient competitive advantage or client attrition, many times such failure can be prevented.   So it’s important to keep in mind that for every company there comes a point in time where your brand can either thrive or take a nose dive.  And when it comes to United Airlines’ recent fiasco with Dr. David Dao, they appear to have jumped into the deep end, committing brand and PR suicide.  So how does this happen? Well, let’s start with understanding brand strategy.

Why does a good brand strategy matter?

A brand is the essence of what your company stands for.  It starts with a vision and grows into a promise that should be reinforced every time people come into contact with any facet of your business from employees to websites to business cards.   

Your brand strategy is the positioning, development, and presenting of the vision and idea of your brand to empower others to understand and believe in what you stand for, and the promise you make and keep.  One of the key points here is that your branding isn’t just a paint coat you slap on the exterior to mask or obfuscate.  Treating it like United has, as merely a skin-deep solution is like putting lipstick on a pig. People will see through it.

Successful branding goes to the core of who and what your company stands for.  And when it is done right, it simplifies, clarifies, and magnifies who you are and what you do.   This clear vision of what you stand for builds trust, understanding, and a relationship where customers will choose you over the competition.   

Moreover, an effective brand strategy will empower you to survive mistakes.  Take Apple for example.  They have built up an amazing brand over the years.  And since the loss of Steve Jobs, year after year, they have sadly produced low-grade, buggy, products, software, and solutions. Yet because of the power of their brand, Apple has maintained loyalty all this time, and only after nearly seven years of disappointment, their brand strategy is no longer able to recover Apple from their poorly executed product strategy.

United has a lot to learn, and could have easily averted this disaster by doing the following things:

Creating and having in place a brand crisis management plan.  That is moving beyond a minimal viable brand, but essentially built upon the six elements

1.   what you stand for (your brand essence)
2.   what you believe in (your defining values)
3.   what groups you seek to engage (your target audience(s)
4.   what you offer (your overarching experience)
5.   what you are distinguished by (your key differentiations)
6.   what you say and how you say it (your logo, look, and lines)

Create a team or resource that will serve to set out what communication procedures with be followed, and lay out the steps that will get a clear, consistent message out to all affected audiences. 

You need to be prepared when something bad happens, respond ASAP. You should be proactively responding, and taking ownership, if the mistake is yours, and demonstrate genuineness and care of the customer, and assurances that corrections are being done to prevent such future mistakes.  Mistakes like the one United made did more than just drop their market value by $1 billion. With review sites, social media, and phone cameras readily in the hands of your customers, it’s not difficult for things to go viral, causing irreparable damage to your brand reputation. In the case with United, the trial and conviction of the aviation police, as well as the lawsuit to be filed by the evicted doctor will keep this brand nightmare in the public eye for at least a year.  Any United bumped passengers will make the news at least for a bit longer and just grind sand in the wounds.

Instead of a good brand strategy aligned with a clear crisis management plan, United’s response to the situation tells their customers they do not care about them. By leveraging, and focusing on the legal proceeds of contract of carriage, United completely kills off customer trust and faith in them as a brand. Then to future the brand damage, United then chose to attack the victim and his character – a choice that always ends badly for the brand.

To prevent this, a great brand crisis management plan needs to involve mapping out general brand statements and responses to theoretical issues and happenings that will describe your concern for the public, with the goal of minimizing your corporate or brand loss.  While you cannot plan your exact message in advance, you can plan what your message needs to convey.   Predetermined strategies, including plans for releasing news, establishing and staffing physical and online media centers, staying active and responsive on social media, handling real time issues with responsive updates, and demonstrating attention that you are working to remedy the problem to prevent it from recurring again – all help to mitigate damage to your brand.  This kind of proactive risk and threat identification is like training for the big game. Preparation can really win the game.

While it is a shameless plug, these are exactly the things we work with our clients to establish and be prepared for with proactive brand strategies and PR plans.  Don’t make the same mistake United did, build and protect your brand so that you can be more responsive, and turn a mistake into a golden opportunity to show how good your brand is.  Contact us today and see what we can do for you.
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