The Worst Customer Service Narrative In The History Of Branding

In facilitating a branding workshop last week, it suddenly struck me.

One of the great myths of branding is the big guys get it right.

Thanks to their ample war chests, they can hire the smartest people, maintain an endless flow of M&Ms during focus groups and stockpile creative types.

It’s just not true.

Worse, bad branding begets bad branding. By that, I mean companies look up to these behemoths as role models and mimic their work.

united airlinesAs proof that the big guys can crash a brand, we’ll pick on United Airlines. Here’s a company that generated almost $9B in revenue last fiscal year. Even with the public dings – the guitar story still gets run on YouTube at 11,622,638 views and counting – people still fly United.

The United website proudly announces the page, “Our United Customer Commitment.”

Sounds promising.

Certainly, the brand stewards find this turf deserving of attention.

Yet, look at how the business storytelling plays out -

We are committed to providing a level of service to our customer that makes us a leader in the airline industry.

Now there’s a warm and friendly opener.

If there was ever a time for communications to focus outward (customer), not inward (company), it would be discussing commitment to the customer. Yet, the very first line talks about customer service “that makes US a leader in the airline industry.”

We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.

Again, the words reflect an inward perspective.

And how the hell did the copy make a wrong turn at Drury Lane, pointing to employees who like coming to work.

Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.

Nice.

The third line finally brings the customer into the frame.

Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible.

Huh?

I thought that’s what I was reading.

The Commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion.

Revealing that United seeks an “attaboy” for communications that are “clear, consistent and understandable…”

We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them.

They decided to ask the Six Sigma department to craft the closing graph with a touch of TQC.

Welcome on board United Airlines!

Nothing wrong with the sign off.

It’s the previous words that miss the mark.

The last time I saw copy this bad Toyota was writing letters to its customers to diffuse the uproar over gas pedals sticking.

The big guys don’t always get it right.

It could be that United actually agrees. I couldn’t find the “Our United Customer Commitment” page yesterday, but here’s how it looked last week:

united customer commitment

If you have other jarring examples, by all means share them.

If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Brand Building Requires Courage.”

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3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. [...] to do it better. Fat and lazy gets beaten by small and quick, the big guys can get it wrong with terrible customer service story telling – that ignores the [...]

  2. Gene Dexter April 23rd, 2014 9:44 am

    You should take a look at the spontaneous marketing taking place between @1938Loren and @LeeJeans . Talk about big companies that don’t get it? This is a case study.

  3. hoffman April 23rd, 2014 3:41 pm

    Thanks Gene. I will check this one out.

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