Rohit Bhargava feels that United Airlines lacks a brand personality. Is he right?

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Rohit Bhargava is the author of a recently released book called Personality Not Included and also the blogger of the very popular Influential Marketing Blog. Recently, when he was asked “what is one brand desperately in need of personality?”, his answer (unsurprisingly) was United Airlines. Here is what he had to say:

The one that stands out for me simply because I travel a lot and live in a major hub is United Airlines. The amount of money they waste on brand campaigns is just staggering. Who in America hasn’t heard of United Airlines? No one. So why spend all this money to tell them who you are? They have so much potential to reinvent the way that they train their employees and that they use social media to allow people to have a more direct relationship with them. Sometimes I dream about getting them as a client because there are so many solutions that could make such a big impact on their brand. It’s uncommon to have a brand with that much untapped potential.

I couldn’t agree with Rohit more! Just look at their latest advertisements and you know that they’re trying to put lipsick on a pig. There is a huge disconnect between the picture they’re trying to paint, and the general consumer impression about the airline, which is formed by product experience, not just advertisements.

Talk is cheap!

In June, at a BrandSmart 2008 conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to listen to and meet Dennis Cary, United’s SVP of Marketing (who’s just been promoted to Chief Marketing Officer). Though he’s an extremely talented professional, neither his speech about the latest premium passenger previlages nor his emphasis only on inter-continental First Class and Business Class resonate with the audience. Most of these audience were probably “cattle-class” domestic travelers who had to bear with long lines and long delays on the tarmac at United’s overcrowded Chicago hub. Similarly, the advertisements being aired to the average “six-pack Joe” do not resonate as well. United Airlines becoming is fast becoming one of those brands that we tend to gloss over, when we encounter any of their marketing efforts. So, what can United do?

Why is cattle class important? Because opinions matter.

Since United Airlines gets most of their revenues from premium passengers, it is probably logical to concentrate all their efforts (marketing or otherwise) on this customer segment. But what they don’t realize is that these passengers are small in numbers compared to those who travel in Economy Class. This means that more of these people are able to spread their opinions to others, and any marketer will tell you how important word-of-mouth is. So if a small number of pampered customers are keeping quiet (since they’re so busy anyway), and a large number of dis-satisfied customers are beating the drum about their experiences,  the overall result will be utterly negative. Hence, there’s a strong need for United Airlines to connect with their customers, premium or otherwise – as Rohit rightly points out. And how can they do that?

Get to know your customer, personally

United Airlines will only be able to communicate a brand image that is relevant and resonates with the customers if they understand their needs well. To do that, they need to interact with their customers, online and offline – as Rohit suggests. United doesn’t need to look to the likes of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific to learn how to engage their customers. Right in their arena is JetBlue, which does a fantastic job of using the latest technologies to interact with their customers and engage them in a conversation.

Beyond using online social sites like Twitter and Facebook, United should also have people stationed at airport terminals to cater to customer needs. Once again, JetBlue was great at doing this by having staff stationed throughout their new Terminal 5 at JFK airport to help customers, since it’s only recently opened. Truly addressing customers’ needs exactly when they are in need would go a long way in building brand trust for United Airlines.

Employees as brand ambassadors

My only pleasant experience with United Airlines took place when I met a well-trained, fresh-on-board flight attendant. Such an experience seems to be a rarity these days, more so because of lack of training and welfare for staff, than anything else. I’ve been highlighting the importance of happy and well-trained employees often enough on this blog. When the staff if well trained, they become the ultimate spokesperson for the brand since they’re the ones who interact with the customer at every touch point – from call centers to the check-in counter. Having them believe in the brand and communicate it well can do wonders. Moreover, they can always be tapped upon for customer insights and feedback too. The essence of this lies in keeping them happy!

Rohit makes a good point that it’s “uncommon to have a brand with that much untapped potential”. I think the whole of US airline industry, with a couple of exceptions*, is full of brands with untapped potential. What do you think? Can the US airlines ever regain the former glory of the likes of PanAm? Is United really lacking a brand personality? Do you think Rohit is right? Let’s hear it in the comments section…

*I feel the couple of exceptions are Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines.

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