It has been a historically bad month for United Airlines and its brand.
The company encountered a public relations disaster this week when a man was filmed being dragged from a plane to make room for crew members who needed seats. In the days following, the company’s consumer perception levels dropped to their lowest levels in 10 years, according to YouGov BrandIndex, consumer perception research firm. It could take at least two years to recover, maybe as many as 10 — or even more, says Erich Joachimsthaler, chief executive of global brand strategy consulting firm Vivaldi.
Based on interviews with 4,800 people per day, the YouGov BrandIndex score ranges from minus 100 to 100 with a zero score equaling a neutral position. United Airlines’
score was 3 on April 8, a relatively benign score before the videos of the man being dragged from his seat by airport police at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with a bloodied face were posted. As of April 14, the score was minus 40. United’s chief executive Oscar Munoz apologized several times for the fiasco and told ABC News he felt “shame” over the incident.
But Joachimsthaler said it won’t be that easy to erase the image. “The doctor’s lawyers will try very hard to keep the story alive over the next year or so,” he said. “The more the lawyers can position United as the villain, the better it is for the legal case or settlement.” But he said some brands that are “authoritative leaders” have a harder time recovering. “Several studies have shown that even over two years, the brand does not restore its original brand perceptions,” he added.
YouGov chief executive officer Ted Marzilli compared the position United is in now to when Delta Air Lines’s computer glitch grounded hundreds of flights world-wide in August 2016. Then, the airline’s score fell from 9 to minus 33 over the course of a week (and has since risen to 1 — slightly above neutral).
“Right now United should be focusing more on how to address the social media storm swirling around its brand,” Marzilli said. “The brand has not been moving at social media speed to catch up and get ahead of the crisis. This may be indicative of a breaking point with the public resenting their treatment by large corporations.”
There are a few lessons United could learn from Delta, whose brand bounced back from its crisis, he said. On Aug. 8, 2016 before the glitch occurred, 37% of consumers said they would consider flying Delta the next time they had to purchase an airline ticket. Four days later, that number dropped to 27%, but Sept. 1, 2016, 39%, of consumers said they’d consider flying Delta — higher than it was originally. (Delta and United did not respond to request for comment.)
Positive measures the brand took included the CEO apologizing outright. Then, the airline waived rebooking fees and tried to accommodate passengers stranded in airports, passing out water bottles and food. Although their response was beneficial, Marzilli said Delta “doesn’t own the playbook” in crisis recovery, and had one critical difference on its side: the Delta crisis was caused by a mechanical error, whereas United’s was human. “Technology can seem beyond our control, but when it involves people’s decisions and actions, it takes on a far more serious and humane dimension,” he said.
Marzilli also said United’s fall on the YouGov BrandIndex isn’t the biggest drop yet. Incidents involving death or safety, like Toyota’s
faulty air bag recall or the 2010 explosion of a BP
oil rig and oil spill in U.S. waters, were more catastrophic in terms of consumer fallout. Those recovery periods took years. (The environmental disaster ultimately caused BP tens of billions of dollars.)
Christine Sarkis, deputy executive editor at SmarterTravel.com said this could be a tipping point both for the brand and for the airline industry, as consumers demand policy change regarding overbooking. “Airline passengers have been pushed around for a long time, but never quite this literally,” she said. “The best-case scenario for the traveling public is that this incident inspires real change in the airline industry. This could happen through a combination of sweeping voluntary changes — which happen all the time in the airline industry, just not usually in a direction that favors passengers — and specific legislation.”