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United Airlines and the PR Problem of Transactional Brands

United Airlines took a public relations beating last week... is provided by CommPRO Global, Inc. (CommPRO) to give visitors the opportunity to read about events and share opinions for those interested in the integrated communications business sectors. is provided by CommPRO Global, Inc. (CommPRO) to give visitors the opportunity to read about events and share opinions for those interested in the integrated communications business sectors.

Via Skinnylawyer & Spreadshirt

United Airlines (UAL) took a public relations last week when they didn’t allow passengers wearing leggings onto a flight. It felt like the internet pointed all of its vitriol at United for an entire day. According to Brandwatch, United’s mentions on Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB) and Instagram grew exponentially, from its average 2,000 daily mentions to 174,000. Nearly 70% of the mentions were reportedly negative.

The problem for United Airlines was not that they didn’t allow the passengers onto the airplane. They did. The problem wasn’t in their response. It was straightforward and fair. The problem was in their brand.

United has a purely transactional brand. They are incredibly successful company from a bottom-line financial performance standpoint. But, they have virtually no true fans. Even their most loyal customers only purchase from them begrudgingly. So, when small problems arise for United, they quickly become a big deal. United customers happily take the time to air public grievances. That’s what happens when brands created transactional brands — Brands that charge a lot for their products but do nothing to surprise, delight or empower their customers.

Passion brands stand for more than just great products and great marketing. Passion brands empower their customers. Unlike United, they create an emotional relationship with their customers. They improve lives, one small step at a time. While United is an incredibly large and impressive company in many ways, they don’t do anything to make their customers feel special in any way. They don’t empower or inspire their customers. It’s all transactional, not emotional.

I personally fly United almost every week. I turn to them before other airlines because I know the airline is reliable and I like getting the frequent flyer miles. But, like thousands of other customers, I don’t purchase from United with any joy, the way I do with other companies that sell expensive products. This is because United doesn’t invest in anything that makes my relationship with the brand about anything other than the air travel. There’s no content that educates me. There’s nothing about the airline experience that is more comfortable or convenient than other airlines. They’ve done virtually nothing to thank me for years of loyal service.

So, like other customers, when I see them acting rudely to other passengers, I don’t have any empathy for their brand. For many social-connected customers, it’s not just about lacking empathy for United, it’s an opportunity for payback. People happily turn against brands that are transactional in nature. When customers give their hard-earned dollars and loyalty and receive no emotional benefits, the animosity builds. It’s incredibly easy for them to post on social and then feed off of other social posts.

United is a behemoth and will shake off this small misstep. But, very few brands are as large as United or work in an industry as complicated as air travel. For many other brands, a mistake like this could be a death knell.

Yet, the opposite is also true. When brands invest in empowering their customers, they not only avoid social payback for missteps, they build cultural currency and benefit from an army of evangelists that will happily spread brand love in good times and bad.

(See the original article on CommPRO)

About the Author: Jeff Rosenblum, Founder of Questus, is documentary filmmaker and industry disruptor. Jeff has counseled influential brands like American Express, Apple, Capital One, Disney, Ford, General Mills, Marriott, Suzuki, the NFL, Universal, and Verizon. Jeff wrote and directed The Naked Brand, a groundbreaking documentary about the advertising revolution, and has garnered some of marketing’s most prestigious awards. In FRICTION, Jeff argues that passion brands actively remove friction from customers’ lives. Fighting friction eliminates the obstacles that prevent customers from doing what they want to do. Removing friction empowers customers and improves their lives one small step at a time.

Stories like Charlie Munger’s inspire me. It shows why you must live life as an optimist.