United/Smisek’s Marketing can’t work in a Hyper Connected World
Authenticity is not an option anymore!
I have flown Millions of miles on United Airlines. And I can’t say I shed a tear when I heard Smisek was “stepping down”. I am pretty sure my fellow 1Kers and Global Services passengers were also leading a silent cheer last week.
To be fair, Smisek and all airline CEO’s have a brutally difficult job. It is a tough business and the legacy airlines have tremendous transformation to go on just about every facet of their business.
But I can’t cut Mr. Smisek any slack on the horrific marketing that was pumped out during his tenure. I was a very frequent customer of United (SFO Hub) and the marketing would drive me crazy. Why? Because it was just so phony! Or more politely, inauthentic!
In today’s social/mobile world every consumer is hyper connected. It is not like the old days, where customers and prospects could not engage with one another and advertising and marketing could just decide what positioning and marketing message they wanted. But It today’s world, your brand and marketing message better be “who you are”. You can stretch it a little and brand “who you want to be”, but you better be showing tangible effort that your company is trying to get there quickly.
Bottom Line: In today’s hyper connected world, authenticity is not an option, it is a requirement. Violate the law of authenticity and become an Internet meme!
United’s marketing violated the new laws of marketing authenticity and then didn’t just violate them a little, they were guilty of multiple felonies.
Let’s just discuss two examples
First, United tried to rebrand itself as the “friendly” airline with a return to the Friendly skies campaign from yesteryear. I am sure this sounded good in the marketing meetings. Customer research surely showed that passengers wanted a friendly experience and United’s competitors were not trying to “own” that positioning or word….so let’s go for it. Unfortunately, it is not 1970, you can’t just broadcast a message on traditional media and pound the message into customers. Customers knew that United was “Not friendly”. A quick examination of the united Twitter feed would have shown that. If you surveyed a 100,000 United customers and did a word association test, I am certain that United would get zero “friendly” responses. In fact, I am pretty sure “hostile” would far outrank anything close to friendly. The company has a long history of labor issues with its unions and every united passenger knows that their flight crew, gate agent and call center person is very unhappy with their job. I make it a point to never complain to United flight crews because I know they are less happy than I am when seated in 34B on EWR to SFO. The advertising was not only ineffective, it was a negative to the brand. It made customers dislike the airline even more.
Second example. It’s a smaller one. But it drove me crazy. When you get on the plane and have to watch the Airline’s promo videos, they were simply the worst. They were wonderfully produced and very high quality, but once again they violated the authenticity rule. They always had very happy United employees talking about the “how they loved working at United”. Really? In millions of miles flown, why had I never met any of these employees. The granddaddy of all inauthenticity was the “London Symphony video”. In that video, Smisek in a great suit, perfectly coiffed hair and a great manicure explained how he had contracted with the London Symphony orchestra to record the United theme song. Talk about tone deaf. The company who is too cash strapped to pay its employees or treat its customers well, is spending money with the London Symphony on the theme song?????!!!!! Worse than that, they actually produced a TV spot showing an orchestra playing in a United plane. The social mobile consumer was quick to point out on the internet that it was highly unlikely that a cello could fit in any of the spaces United alots for seats. And the message of the ad was “every movement carefully planned, coordinated and synchronized” and compared United performance to a finely tuned orchestra! Really? It does not come any less authentic than that. I mean, have you ever see United board a plane? How about just getting the right amount/variety of crappy food on the plane?
New United CEO, Oscar Munoz has a huge task in front of him, I can’t imagine his “fix it list”. Improving the airline’s on time record and customer service will be hard. Fixing the marketing won’t. Just make it authentic!