May 8, 2017
Why United's Disturbing Video Won't Ground Its Brand
By Ted Shaw

What a difference a month makes for United Airlines.

On April 9, United sparked global outrage. As you’ve no doubt heard and seen, a video surfaced in which a doctor, David Dao, screams as two security workers pull him out of his seat on an overbooked Chicago-Louisville flight. In the video, passengers cry out in confusion and outrage as the officers drag the dazed physician through the aisle. Dao, bloodied from the ordeal, wound up in the hospital with multiple injuries. 

Fast-forward, the incident is receding into the past. United settled with Dao for an undisclosed sum. Embattled United CEO Oscar Muñoz still has a job, though many have called for his ouster after his initial response.

This is clearly a bad situation across the board and United’s brand has been dragged through the mud. Nevertheless, United has a very good chance of surviving this crisis for two reasons: Consumers have short memories and new images tend to crowd out old ones. 

Getting past United’s brand disaster

 

It’s one thing to hear about an incident like this, but seeing it affects us on a much more visceral level. That’s because vision is our primary sense. About half of our mental processing power is used for vision or vision recall. Evolutionarily, this is likely because being able to see predators and sources of food were integral to our survival.

We can’t un-see the United video, but the numbing process has already begun. That included meme-orializing the event. In the days after the incident, Reddit’s front page included a dozen or more posts about the incident. As is typical, the posts and memes made light of the event. Many recycled clips from Airplane were posted in social media, particularly the one in which passengers take turns violently “calming” down a fellow passenger.

As is the case with past “brand disasters,” over time, United-created images of happy fliers and perky crews will overcome this one disturbing video even if the rational part of our brains think these images are dumb and phony. 

Learning from past video crises

 

For United, the healing process has already begun. Though the company’s consumer perception hit a 10-year low shortly after the incident, if past brand crises are any guide, there’s nowhere to go but up. 

For instance, do you remember a similarly damaging blow to one brand’s image back in 2009? Some eight years ago, a video circulated showing workers at one location doing disgusting things with food that was going to customers. The brand’s president, Patrick Doyle, then issued a mea culpa on YouTube that undid much of the damage. Most people probably don’t even remember that Domino’s incident now. 
Similarly, in early 2016, Chipotle was facing a crisis over a slew of food-borne illnesses, which launched endless chatter in social media. Chipotle’s stock has recovered nicely since then. Just before United’s blow-up, Pepsi was facing similar pushback over its misguided Kendall Jenner ad, which showed the reality star defusing political conflicts with the soft drink. A week later, Pepsi’s stock hit a new high and Pepsi’s brand image jumped 44%. As the late Chuck Berry sand, it goes to show you never can tell. 

United knows how this works. The company has been through this before with “United Breaks Guitars,” a 2009 video by musician Dave Carroll lamenting the loss of his instrument at United’s hands. Though that moment was hailed as a breakthrough for social media, it barely affected United’s stock price. (The airline industry may be uniquely insulated against claims of poor customer service since it is an industry-wide problem.) Similarly, proposed consumer boycotts against Uber and Starbucks fizzled. 

Good news for marketers 

 

Most brands are pretty much bulletproof because they’re adept at changing the subject with new images. They need to be. After all, consumers with smartphone video cameras aren’t going away.

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