Is Your Brand Promise Authentic?

David DeWolf

For the previous decade I have racked up airline miles on American. As an AAdvantage Platinum flyer, I was a very loyal customer. I knew American inside and out. I knew it wasn’t the cheapest airline but I also knew what I could count on.

American is dependable. In 12 years of exclusive travel on American Airlines, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I was delayed. American is premium. I could tell that it was built for business travelers. As a Platinum member (and frankly, even in the years I was only Gold), I knew I would be rewarded for my loyalty with upgrades and privileges. American lived its brand promise, “We know why you fly.” I felt like they really did, and I could identify with that promise and see how it impacted my own flying.

This year, a perfect storm forced me to decide to switch to United Airlines. When we decided to shut down our operations in Argentina, my last excuse for flying American disappeared. Now that my travel was focused exclusively in United’s wheelhouse (the Northeast and Europe), and I lived 10 minutes from their hub at Dulles Airport, it made sense to switch.

After making the tough decision and giving up my status, I began to get excited about the change. The convenience of a hub in my backyard and the promise of “Flying the friendly skies” became appealing. I was confident that this was the right move.

I’ve been nothing but disappointed. The friendly skies haven’t been everything that they are cracked up to be. I expected a certain experience based on their brand promise and it’s proven to disappoint.

Twice I have witnessed the flight crew instruct passengers to move back to their original seats on an empty plane. Why? Because the “premium” seats (exit rows and bulkheads) are more expensive and the airline will only allow you to move to empty seats if you pay for the upgrade. Friendly? I think not. Greedy is the word I’d use.

I have witnessed a flight attendant yelling at a passenger. Yes, yelling. Listen, I have traveled enough to witness belligerent passengers and expect flight attendants to lose their cool every now and then. That said, yelling at a customer is anything but friendly, and in the situation I witnessed, the passenger was anything but disrespectful. He was just looking for an answer.

I have been delayed at least a dozen times in my first ten months of travel on United and in at least 50% of the cases the customer service has been neutral at best, and in some cases snarky. I don’t get the feeling that the folks helping me during these delays are my friends. There’s no empathy. Don’t get me wrong, there is the occasional friendly flight attendant, but the general feeling during these inconveniences is, “Here we go again, I’ve got to help these annoying passengers.”

In my neighborhood, friendly typically comes along with not only a smile but also a helping hand. Apparently United doesn’t believe in that sort of nonsense. I witnessed a poor lady struggling to get her suitcase into the overhead compartment. When she asked for help she was rebuked. Apparently United has a policy against putting baggage in the overhead compartment for a passenger. They are able to “assist” but not do it for you. According to some manual that was quoted this means “to push with one hand in order to help close the door of the overhead.” Really? This poor passenger couldn’t military press her bag, and the flight attendant followed an instruction manual saying she couldn’t help. Luckily the gentleman in front of me was friendly and was able to give her a hand. (And kudos to the flight attendant on my trip yesterday morning – she ignored the policy and actually lent a hand.)

Your brand must be aspirational, but it must also be authentic.

If it’s not, the following will happen:

  • You will lose credibility. I don’t believe anything United says anymore. The thing they staked their entire reputation on turned out to be a lie. How can I trust them with the little things? If they tell me that my flight is delayed for 10 minutes, why wouldn’t I expect it to be delayed for 30 minutes?
  • You will be known for nothing. I can’t tell you what the great things about United are. I’m sure there are plenty, but I don’t recognize them or tell others about them because I am stuck on friendly (or, not-so-friendly). The one thing they’ve asked me to be cognizant of is at the top of my mind, and I know from first-hand experience that it’s not true.
  • You will elevate your competition. I have never considered American to be the most friendly airline in the world, but thinking back, I can’t recall more than one experience where I felt as though they were unfriendly (and even that one was a code-share with British Airways). By calling themselves something that they are not, United has elevated my opinion of American. Now I not only think of them as the dependable airline for business travelers, I also consider them a traveler-friendly airline.

What is your brand promise? Is it what you believe the market wants to hear, or is it a true reflection of who you are? Your brand message shouldn’t be just a catchphrase or means for attracting customers, it should be reflective of your actual DNA.