Yup, this surprised me too.
Following “the PR disaster to end all PR disasters” that occurred when footage was released of United Airlines forcibly removing David Dao from one of their flights due to overbooking, one might have thought that the carrier would receive some sort of retribution for their sins.
I mean, all sorts of dirt was being flung at the business, with people speculating that their randomised choice might have been racially motivated, that Dao had incurred brain damage, etc. etc., whilst 6.8 million people watched the spectacle on YouTube in a single day. Even the president weighed in (OK, not an altogether uncommon occurrence these days, but still).
And yet it appears that the effect this scandal had on the bottom line was approximately zero. United went on to post record results in their next quarter, including increased sales. Basically, when push came to shove, nobody really cared.
So what’s going on here? It’s not like PR simply doesn’t matter – there have been many businesses in the past that have been derailed by similar criticism, so why did United get away with it?
To me the reason seems to be this: by behaving in this way, United actually did nothing to undermine their core offering as a company.
United have become, by and by, a low-end carrier. The public now expect poor facilities, poor service, overbooking, and all sorts of other compromises in exchange for good prices, manifold routes, and reliability – all boxes that United tick pretty well. Therefore, when they dragged Dao kicking and screaming from their aircraft, they ironically weren’t really doing anything to contradict that. “Yup, that’s the risk you take flying with United” came the quip, as the ticket sales kept rolling in.
In fact, in an obtuse way, you could almost argue they *enhanced* their image, if you were to consider that this has somehow intensified their grisly, workman-like image. This isn’t to say of course that people now want to fly United more following the incident – it’s just that they broke no promises, kinda fulfilled expectations, and thus now occupy that space in people’s minds even more fully than they did before.
This incident proves the paramount importance of coherence for businesses in the internet age. It doesn’t matter whether you’re “good” or “bad” so much as it matters that you are something in particular, and that this something can be read and easily understood by the market at large. You develop this image not by the messages you pump out in your marketing (though of course they’ll contribute), but by behaving in a distinctive way consistently over a long period of time.
United, whilst they may not be “good”, have been consistent and distinctive. Basically they’ve carved out a niche as the “bad airline”, and, because there is a place for that type of brand in the market, it’s served them very well. A similar thing happened with Ryanair in Europe back in their heyday, where they almost seemed to revel in “bad” PR, so long as it was consistent with their market positioning.
The trouble for United is that, unlike Ryanair, they probably didn’t do this on purpose. Their tagline after all is “fly the friendly skies”, which is sadly the precise opposite of the image they have cultivated in reality. Luckily for them, nobody pays attention to that kind of trite sloganeering anymore, so it doesn’t get in the way of the real brand that is being built daily in the minds of the media and consumers as a result of their actions. Indeed its redundancy speaks volumes about the weakness of traditional marketing today in the face of independent media.
Still, whilst it’s worked out pretty well for United, most businesses will want to actually plan these things, and that means taking the position you want to own in the market (your “friendly skies” say), and dragging that out of your ads and into your real business operations.
But if you just go with the flow you won’t end up like United – bad but remarkable – you’ll probably just be unremarkable full stop – which is much much worse.