Nostalgia Branding Backfire: Can the New United Pull Off Friendly Skies?

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Last week, United Airlines (UAL) resurrected the beloved tag line “Fly the Friendly Skies” with literal fanfare in a spot simulating actor/performers playing “Rhapsody in Blue” on board a United aircraft.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 5.06.17 PM

Of course we don’t know the last time the art director of this commercial flew with us in steerage, but the idea of anyone being able to play a cello sitting in economy-non-comfort is simply nonsensical (at least the timpani is up front).

Other than entering a pressurized tube traveling at 500 knots, flying is fundamentally unrecognizable today from when Leo Burnett coined the famous line 50 years ago. Along the way, friendliness and flying often decided to sleep in separate beds.  Across the airline industry, the relentless “unbundling” of services (food, drinks, bags, legroom, seat assignments, reservation changes, boarding priority, overhead bin space et al. … and in the case of Ryan Air, potentially use of the lavatory) from the underlying air transportation leads to charges that in some cases can significantly exceed the cost of the ticket. In inflation-adjusted dollars the base price of the ticket is down—way down—from when Mad Men and their ilk took to the air or Christie Brinkley lit up cigars on the Concorde.

In fact, most deeply-discounted base fares do not even cover the airline’s actual cost of providing the transportation. But as long as the flying public bases purchase decisions on nothing but the lowest price, airlines will continue pricing madness and will continue to pry open wallets with other tactics. These add-on fees—almost $6 billion earned last year alone—account for all of the airline industry’s profit.  Any transaction that relies on a below-cost upfront sale with subsequent back-end surprises does not set an optimal foundation for friendly feelings.

Earlier this year United quietly upped its fee to change domestic tickets to $200 and international tickets to $300. A move that led the website “The Cranky Flyer” to bestow United with its decidedly uncoveted “Cranky Jackass Award,” but one that should goose the $1.1 billion in reservation change fees United and Delta earned in the first nine months of last year alone. According to Fox News, United increased fee revenue by 13 percent this year to more than $20 for each one-way passenger on average.

Because travelers find these fees so unfriendly, United waives many fees for its most frequent flyers and even allows the hoi polloi to avoid many of them by using a Chase co-branded credit card or by paying more in base fare for the privilege of changing a ticket. But despite these exceptions, it will be an uphill climb for United to charge  confiscatory fees that bear no relation to the cost of the services being offered and simultaneously positioning as the friendly airline. Although all air carriers are addicted to these fees, only United has chosen to explicitly position its brand around being friendly.

Here’s the real problem: United employees have to collect these fees. We have been percipient witnesses to passengers being informed that their $258 tickets are going to cost $200 to change. The spectrum of their reactions typically runs from mild irritation to unhinged, untrammeled rage. Front line employees did not make the decision to start using such fees as the main source of profit, but by gum, they are on the front lines of enforcement.  The entire ‘gotcha’ pricing dynamic where airlines extract payment out of customers vs. having payment willingly proffered simply fails the friendly smell test.

And unlike days of yore, when somebody is unhappy, bad news has a way of proliferating rapidly.

United managing director for brand and advertising Mark Krolick explained that the carrier chose to resurrect the Fly the Friendly Skies line to reflect significant improvements in the flying experience: lie-flat seats, global Wi-Fi, Econony Plus seating and running the world’s largest route system.Whether this campaign succeeds mightily or is a hollow assertion that is honored in the breach will of course ultimately depend less on seats and amenity kits than on how 86,852 United employees deliver on this promise. Friendliness is easy when skies are fair, but requires a delicate balance of transparency and legerdemain when conditions devolve, as all flyers are of course not created equal.

As devoted readers of BrandCulture Talk may recall, at the time of the United-Continental merger, we wrote that we rather liked Continental’s “Work Hard. Fly Right” assertion as striking the right balance between aspiration and reality, with a firm focus on the core business traveler. That said, United does have one thing going for it in bringing back the Fly the Friendly Skies campaign: diminished expectations. In an era of travel where even First Class is characterized less by the benefits it bestows, than by the deprivations it lacks, the flying public today expects that the entire process is going to be pretty awful. Yet friendliness is still risky brand business. Perhaps that’s why United chooses to focus this ad not on the in-air experience, but on finally escaping it:

But despite our sniping, we wish United well. More friendliness in the air and everywhere else is certainly better than less, even if folks like us take some cheap shots from time to time. And we can’t fault them from trying. Do you think United can pull it off?

Now It’s Your Turn
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  • Snella Baringer
    Oct 4, 2013

    This blog is a masterpiece of understated humor. I recommend reading the companion article about charging for toilets by Ryan Air and the musical video entitled ” United Breaks Guitars.” In regard to the latter, I always wondered why my suitcase arrived at the baggage claim with little pieces broken off. Now I know (witness the handling of the guitar case).

    The skies are not friendly any more, and it is wishful thinking to believe that by repeating an ancient slogan everything will be all right. Thank you blogger for pointing out yet another disappointing truth about our current American culture.

  • Rob
    Oct 4, 2013

    This campaign has taken over the BART station at one end of my commute. It’s well executed (visually, at least), but does seem light on “proof points.” A large route network doesn’t make anything friendlier, just bigger. Is the claim credible at all? Are they friendlier skies than SWA’s, for example? Great post.

  • flier of the unfriendly skies
    Oct 12, 2013

    I can’t believe Ryan Air! I sincerely hope their idea does not become a trend. I actually don’t notice much difference between carriers these days other than price, making it clear why people chose who to fly. Even the enticement of unlimited TV, while novel at first, literally works only about half the time I fly airlines that offer it.

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