With 4 Short Words, United Airlines Just Explained How It Really Wants You to Feel


The way the brain  processes memories is weird. We don’t remember facts as accurately as we think. Even eye-witness recollections are highly fallible.

But you know what we do remember? As the late poet Maya Angelou put it, “feelings.” 

It’s especially true with business. And it prompts people to act differently than they otherwise might. Examples:

  • You remember a film or a show fondly, and you’re excited to see it that it’s on TV. But when you watch it again you realize it wasn’t really anything special. Why did you think it would be? Because you saw it with friends and had a great time; you associated the feelings with the film.
  • Or else, you think back to a long-forgotten job, from a time in your life you remember with nostalgia. Maybe the work wasn’t actually the best use of your time and talents, and it didn’t quite pay enough. Why do you remember it so positively? Because you had great coworkers, and you associate the good feelings you had for them with that time.
  • Things can go the other way, too: You change banks or dry cleaners or even the place where you get your morning coffee. It’s not because they’re incompetent or don’t normally offer good service. It’s because of a single bad experience that leads you to associate an unwelcome feeling with the brand.

Sometimes people develop feelings toward brands organically. But sometimes, it happens because businesses make a concerted effort to get people to feel a certain way about them.

All of which brings us to our case in point: the new brand advertising campaign United Airlines unveiled last week — its first new campaign in a decade.

It starts with a four-word slogan: “Good Leads the Way.”

I admit that when I first heard the slogan I paused. The feeling I associated with it was frankly, a bit of confusion. “Good? “Good ‘what?'”

And for that matter, why not “Great?”

But dig a bit deeper, and I think I understand what United is trying to do here. Actually, let’s start by letting United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby explain:

“In the past few years, United has emerged as a force for good and an industry leader. 

We’re taking actions that inspire pride among our employees and customers – everything from historic investments to fight climate change and training more women and people of color to become pilots to getting rid of change fees and upgrading our fleet with 500 new planes. 

This campaign serves not only as an exclamation point on our recent actions, but also as a commitment to how United Airlines intends to show up in the future.”

There’s a lot to unpack, practically speaking. I’m not going to list every component; you can check out everything in United’s formal announcement, here. And I also can’t vouch one way or another on whether United has truly lived up to what it’s claiming here.

But as a business exercise, let’s summarize a few of the key aspects:

  • Employees: United touts things like the fact that it’s the only major U.S. airline with its own pilot training school, plus the steps it took with an employee COVID-19 vaccination program, and a commitment to, “careers, not just jobs.”
  • Customers: The airline includes its plans to acquire 500 new aircraft, its elimination of change fees, its technology designed to make it less likely that passengers miss connections, and the airline’s greatly expanded transatlantic flights, among other things.
  • Communities: Plans to hire more than 50,000 people in the next five years, plus training 5,000 new pilots, “with the goal that at least half will be women and people of color,” along with its effort to fight climate change and promote sustainability.

As selling points, these are sort of all over the map, and would possibly seem disjointed, except for United’s effort to try to group them all under a single theme, like being “a force for good.”

Why do it? Partly, it’s an assessment, as United Airlines chief communications officer Josh Earnest told me, that customers of the future will ask about an airline’s climate change record, or its efforts to promote diversity, before deciding whether to do business with them.

“We know that people choose an airline based on things like price, and schedule, and [asking] ‘is it nonstop?'” Earnest told me. “This is another reason for people to choose an airline. And, we think it is a really good reason.”

But, I think this recognizes that a campaign like this couldn’t work if the underlying structure weren’t there.

No matter what kind of feelings customers might develop about an airline’s “goodness,” it couldn’t succeed without flying passengers safely and comfortably from point A to point B.

Look, I write about airlines here for two reasons. The first and obvious one is simply because so many business leaders are also frequent flyers.

But the other reason is more poignant. It’s that the big airlines are fierce competitors in a commodity industry. They all sell basically the same thing: space on flights from one place to another. 

That means they can differentiate from each other either by making small incremental changes to their product, or else by taking big swings to try to change their entire images, or the feelings their passengers and potential passengers have about them.

It’s all covered by more journalists, analysts, and investors than perhaps any other industry. And, as I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Classes, it turns the whole industry into a non-stop parade of case studies and advice for anyone running any other kind of businesses.

The United brand campaign is a perfect example. 

Maybe you’re not in the airline industry. But can you imagine how getting potential customers to feel a certain way about you might improve your business?

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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