United’s Twitter account sent me a direct message yesterday flagging the New York Times piece about their new advertising campaign that was supposed to harken back to the classic slogan “fly the friendly skies.”
The campaign, though, doesn’t actually speak the iconic phrase and words appear only briefly on screen — it doesn’t talk about its people being friendly. It talks about its features being friendly. It has lots of flights, and that’s friendly.
United is now telling travelers it is everything from “legroom friendly” and “online friendly” to “shut-eye friendly” and “EWR friendly,” which refers to the hub of Continental Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport, which United inherited when the two airlines merged in 2010 to create the world’s largest carrier in terms of passenger traffic.
That’s a crucial distinction, because nobody would believe a campaign that actually harkened back to ‘fly the friendly skies.’ United could never run this ad again:
Instead, you get this:
United’s campaign talks about its features being good, but doesn’t really distinguish those features from its competitors in a meaningful way. I don’t think Matt Damon’s voiceovers are as good as Gene Hackman’s used to be for United (or as good as Donald Sutherland’s are for Delta’s current campaign). But overall the ads are well done.
Hack My Trip doesn’t find them emotionally appealing. I’m going to suggest that’s not the fault of the ads. They’re doing a good job with what they have to work with. In some ways, a great advertising campaign can be the death knell for a mediocre product since everyone learns quickly what you’ve got on offer.
United wasn’t ‘the friendly skies’ before its merger with Continental. And the merger has taken a real toll.
Now, most of the early changes were good and many people have forgotten that. Prior to the integration of the United and Continental computer systems which completely messed up the airline operationally, for instance, we saw changes to frequent flyer award policies for instance which were very positive.
The merger ended United’s practice of ‘blocking’ award seats that were being offered by Star Alliance partners. With United, an airline might offer an award seat but United’s computers would pretend the seat wasn’t available (and agents would usually say the partner was not offering the seats to United). Continental ended that, so awards become much more available.
And routing rules eased. United used to enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ on an award, the amount of miles you could fly between two cities increased substantially (making it much easier to come up with awards that would work) once Continental got in control of things. United didn’t even let you fly over the Atlantic one-way and Pacific the other on an award between the US and Asia (and they didn’t always do it but were even supposed to charge more for an Atlantic crossing).
Of course, at the time I told the Chicago Tribune that the lack of negative changes by May 2011 didn’t mean that there wouldn’t be changes coming that would anger customers (and I flagged at the time decisions about the million miler program as a flashpoint). The way to predict what choices the merged carrier would make in integrating operations was just to look at what Continental policies were.
“Any time you merge two carriers, you’re going to change to one or the other,” Leff said. “And in almost every instance, the change has been to Continental. People who are very, very frequent fliers will notice.”
Now United is often referred to pejoratively as “Continental dba United.”
By May 2011, Continental had changed the aircraft livery but at least they hadn’t gotten rid of Rhapsody in Blue — something that was reportedly on the table in January 2012.
Continental folks really did have an inflated view of their own superiority.
Which isn’t to say that Continental itself wasn’t a good airline. But there isn’t nearly so much left of the old United dna. And they weren’t nearly so much better than United as they believed they were — a reality that came crashing down when they actually merged the airlines into a single entity in March 2012.
Reservations were lost. Agents had no idea how to use the computer systems. Flights couldn’t fly. Telephone wait times stretched into the hours. Things have gotten better than they were of course, but they’re still bad and systems are still broken. United’s computers still fail to ticket awards on partner airlines properly, with award itineraries mysteriously getting cancelled out.
And no one can really say that United has great service. Flying United is simply not flying the friendly skies.
Some of the very best flight crews I’ve ever had have been on United, though it’s entirely random and relatively rare. There’s nothing about United per se that gives you a good flight crew and I’d even suggest purely anecdotally from only my own experiences that American and Delta crews are on average better.
It makes no sense and does no good to advertise that United gives you friendly skies. Which is why it’s interesting that instead they now offer things that they say are ‘flyer friendly’ — things that, for the most part, are what their competitors also offer.
That illustrates what’s so hard about airline advertising. Non-stop flights are a reason to pick an airline. Price is a reason to pick an airline. Frequent flyer benefits are a reason to pick an airline.
The sorts of things that advertising can do, make people aware of your brand and express a feeling that’s consistent with your product, aren’t helpful since there’s just not much in the way of unique selling propositions for United (or American or Delta or…) to be communicated to mass audiences in an ad. That’s probably fine, but it’s why spending $30 million on a campaign isn’t really likely to move the needle.
Compare what United can do in advertising to Singapore Airlines’ new campaign. The ads show flight attendants going to extreme lengths to be prepared to meet the needs of each of their customers individually. And while you don’t have to believe that the flight attendants themselves are visiting film festivals in India or sourcing tea from ancient, expert sources, you believe the general idea that this represents the airline’s approach to service. United simply cannot run that ad.
At least they haven’t killed Rhapsody in Blue.