United in Shame

What do Volkswagon, Wells Fargo, Uber, and now United all have in common? 

You might say they are "united" in shame.

They've all seen multi-BILLION dollar losses in their valuations due to unwritten rules or internal cultural norms that undermined their brand. The incident this week is just the latest, but being so shockingly caught on camera, United's new spin on “high-touch” customer service deserves special consideration.

Within a matter of hours after the ugly incident, United’s CEO began what should have been a mea-culpa apology tour off on the absolute wrong foot by getting defensive and issuing a statement asserting (correctly) that United was well within its right in ejecting the passenger over the airline’s own error. Huge mistake: Who cares about the legal high ground when the Internet is ablaze with flames of your own making?!? Forty-eight hours later, the crisis communications team had him singing a far more apologetic and contrite tune.

Twenty-four hours later, a series of nationwide customer satisfaction phone surveys kicked into high gear; United’s frantic attempt at keeping their thuggish fingers on the pulse of just how bad it was getting. And it got – and is still getting – worse. The company lost more than a billion dollars in value within days of the incident as its stock (pardon the morbid aviation metaphor) took a nosedive. And the bleeding continues: when other airlines troll you online, you know it’s bad. That’s like a bunch of sewer rats calling out one of their own over his foul hygiene.

The reality is that the large “institutional-type” companies tend to survive even severe brand damage despite their worst episodes, nearly 100 percent of which are self-inflicted. Think: Audi (long ago), Volkswagen (still recent), BP (between the two), etc. It’s a long list and, in a perverse way, a testament to at least having the mitigating instinct to navigate back to some core “north star” when the shit hits the fan. Or when the oil hits the pelican. Or when the car puts itself in gear.

And yet this time – this particular offense – hits home at a visceral level even though no fish, waterfowl or emission standards were killed. Whether you read about it, heard about or saw it on video, the sense of personal violation is palpable… and really ups the ante for United, certainly as much as the lawsuit now being leveled by the doctor who was forcibly removed from his seat.

Will hundreds of millions spent in advertising be undone by a shortsighted unwillingness on the part of a relatively few United employees (aided and abetted by Chicago TSA henchman) to go “above and beyond” and offer more than $800 in travel vouchers for the seats it so desperately needed to fulfill its gauze-thin “obligations” to another flight in a different city? Among frequent travelers, United was already held in sub-basement-level regard. Hard to see an elevator to the flight deck in the carrier’s near- or short-term future. But long term? Expect to see United making repeated appearances in this column for years to come. Welcome to the intersection of “Too big to fail” and “Too tone-deaf to care.”

Unsure what unwritten rules, behaviors, or cultural norms might be at risk of undermining your brand?  BrandFoundations can help. Download our diagnostic tool to gauge the health of your culture. Or learn more about our Brand-Culture Archetype Assessment to see what gaps exist between your brand and culture story. Before it's too late.