Episode Flyer for #52: Brand Lessons from United Air
Episode Flyer for #52: Brand Lessons from United Air

Guest: Doug Foresta        Guest Title: Producer of Human Potential at Work with Debra Ruh

Date: April 19, 2017            Guest Company:  Stand Out and Be Heard            


[Intro music]


Debra: This is Debra Ruh and you are listening to Human Potential at Work and we are broadcasting this over Facebook Live. I have my partner and producer Doug Foresta here and Doug has really been encouraging me to get on Facebook Live. So, Doug, I am looking forward to the conversation we’re going to have today but do you mind talking a little more about what we’re doing?


Doug: I’d love to and I just have to say there is a slight delay between us live and being live so it’s a really interesting experience. It’s like going into the past [laughs] seeing myself. I always wanted to do time travel.


Debra: [laughs]


Doug: So what we’re doing is, for those of you who have been listening to Human Potential at Work podcast, we are now doing Facebook Lives. We’re going to be engaging with you, talking about topics that are of importance to you, Debra, and of importance to the community- things relating to human potential and the disability community. So we’re using this new medium that I’m really excited about and moving into this so that we can engage with you in real time and really take your questions- hear what you have to say, and respond.


Debra: And also we are using our Facebook group-


Doug: Correct.


Debra: to make sure that it’s live. So anybody that wants to join our Facebook group, it is Human Potential at Work and everyone is welcome. It’s about community and building a big community and trying to break down some of the silos that we see. Certainly, in the community of people with disabilities, the aging in place, and accessibility and disability inclusion, but this is really about human potential- really tapping into human potential and, I believe, social impact and social good, too. So Doug and I are stoked about this and looking forward to the conversations and also you are able to join us during these conversations and you can ask questions. This is our first time so we’re learning. So thanks for being patient.


Doug: [laughs] That’s right. Thanks for your patience. Exactly.


Debra: [laughs] And once again our goal is to be accessible for everyone so what we’re going to do is we’ll still transcribe our podcast-


Doug: That’s right.


Debra: So everybody can have access to it. Really, once again, we’re focused on full inclusion.


Doug: That’s right


Debra: So today, Doug, we’re going to talk about a topic that has been trending all over the world.


Doug: Exactly.


Debra: We’re talking about branding still because it’s very important that corporate brands (and other brands but we’re going to talk about it from the lens of corporate brands), make sure that all of us understand. We want to humanize the brand.


Doug: That’ right.


Debra: As we’ve talked about in other shows. We want to humanize and we want brands to tell communities, like the community of people with disabilities, what they’re doing to fully include us.


Doug: That’s right.


Debra: Tell us what you’re doing to support foundations that support people with disabilities. What are you doing in different countries? What advertising are you doing? Tell us what you’re doing as a brand so we can support you.


Doug: Right.


Debra: And we also want to encourage the community to reward those brands-


Doug:             Right.


Debra: that are doing the right thing. Today we’re going to talk about some brands that are making mistakes.


Doug: [laughs] Right.


Debra: Something that’s definitely been trending now and we’re going to talk about United Air. Oh, hello, Michelle. We have Michelle joining us.


Doug: Awesome!


Debra: How exciting to have people joining us. Very exciting. Branding lessons: Can we learn from United Air? Doug, do you want to take a minute for anybody that might not have heard about or seen what happened on United Air?


Doug: Yeah. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not hearing about it, but basically what happened is that… United Airlines actually just recently had this whole thing with the leggings issue where they threw an employee’s relative off because they were wearing leggings. That sort of was here nor there. But more recently this week what ended up happening is that United overbooked- it actually wasn’t even really overbooking. It was that they had these four employees that needed to go somewhere and they were kicking people off that had already boarded the plane and there was this older Asian-American gentleman and they asked him to leave. He refused to leave and they called the police and he was dragged out and, of course, in this day and age people got footage of it.


Debra: Right.


Doug: And it was really awful because what ended up happening was he ended up with a concussion, two front teeth knocked out, broken nose and, of course, it went viral. What really ended up happening that was sort of (I think) the worst thing about it- the way I put it was like: they turned it from a branding fiasco into a branding disaster [laughs]


Debra: Yeah. Yeah. I know Michelle who has joined us on Facebook Live- .


Doug: Scorpions!


Debra: mentioned the scorpions. In a way, poor United because it’s like- and then scorpions are dropping on passengers and biting them and it [laughs] seems like a real branding nightmare.


Doug: Yes.


Debra: it almost seems like everything could go wrong is going to go wrong. You posted something on Human Potential at Work and one of our community members, Rob Lane (good friend of mine who happens to have an amazing son with autism, one of the smartest mathematicians I’ve ever met and also a good friend of Sarah Ruh’s), he said, “Yeah, you can’t really blame every single United employee. That’s not fair. And I think their brand will survive.”


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: And I really believe in being compassionate and empathetic but at the same time, Doug, I can’t unsee them going in and grabbing a passenger kicking and screaming off of a plane.




Debra: While everyone’s watching- children, women. The world is watching.


Doug: Exactly.


Debra: And it was horrible. The gentleman was a doctor who said, “I need to be on this plane. I have patients that I have to deal with tomorrow morning.”


Doug:             That’s right.


Debra: Not that it matters. In a way, it’s really not good for any passenger.  Are your passengers less important than your employees? I don’t believe so. I believe in being empathetic for brands but they made so many mistakes on this and of course their stock has dropped billions of dollars.


Doug: Oh, yes.


Debra: And they wanted to move into Asia and now…[exhales incredulously]


Doug: Right. It doesn’t look the greatest when you’re trying to move into the Asian market and you obviously have this image. I think that there are many lessons from this but I would ask people what is the United brand worth right now?


Debra: Yeah. I don’t think it would be very good.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: It is very interesting to watch the other airlines participate. When we were preparing for this talk- you were looking yesterday [laughs] at some of the [memes]


Doug: Yes.


Debra: Thank you for joining us Michelle, we appreciate it.


Doug: Yes, thank you.


Debra: It was interesting to see how some of the airlines had responded to United. There are multiple airlines who don’t feel that United has treated them very well in the press.


Doug: Correct.


Debra: Now they are jumping in.


Doug: Oh, the memes are endless. [laughs] Aren’t they, Debra? [laughs] We were going through some of them. They are just endless: “We beat out competition, not you.”


Debra: [laughs]


Doug: There are just so many of them.


Debra: Right.


Doug: Right, it just goes on and on and on- so I’m sure many people are familiar. That’s part of what happened. One of the things that I think that these memes have caught on is that there’s an underlying thing which is that I think there is a culture, and not just at United but many airlines, of treating us like cattle and herding us.


Debra: Right


Doug: I think this is our way of having our moment of schadenfreude, as they say. Is that how you say it? You know what I mean? taking delight in the misery of another. [laughs]


Debra: I know, know and I don’t want to take delight but I will tell you the excuse for overbooking, especially in the United States, is that “Well, passengers don’t show up so we have to protect ourselves.”


Doug: Right.


Debra: I know that my husband had booked a flight on another airline because his father was deathly ill and it turned out his father took a turn for the worse. We couldn’t wait for the flight so we drove to Florida and his father unfortunately passed away but when we went back to the airline and we told them what had happened and at this point we were still five days away from this flight. We told them we don’t need the flight. We were penalized $200. You pay really big fines when you change your flight. Unless you’re flying on airlines like Southwest Airline that doesn’t do that, but a lot of the airlines, they nail you when you don’t show up. So overbooking a seat over and over again, and as you said this wasn’t even about overbooking-


Doug: No.


Debra: this was because they wanted to send four employees to another airport where I’m sure hundreds of passengers were waiting.


Doug: Right.


Debra: But to decide, once again, that anybody’s more important than another- there’s so many problems with this story and how you deal with it.


Doug: At the end of the day it was a lack of empathy


Debra: Yeah, obviously I’m going to turn this to the community I care about, but one way a brand can engage with us is by including communities in more empowering ways and of course I really care about the community of people with disabilities and people that are aging in place and every other community as well. One way that brands can really tell us they care about us is by including us in advertising. We’re seeing some really good examples of that. Honeymaid did a beautiful commercial a few months ago where they showed a mother and a daughter making a healthy snack (and I care about healthy food) and at the very end of the commercial they pan back and you see that the mother is in a wheelchair and I thought, “Oh, love it. Love it, Honeymaid. Good job.” There was another commercial that Guinness beer did and my husband is a big fan of Guinness beer and it was a group of men playing a rough game of basketball. They were very aggressively playing their basketball and they were in wheelchairs and at the end of the commercial most of the men stood up and walked out and there was just one man in a wheelchair. I had some people with disabilities say, “Oh, they’re trying to use us as inspiration porn again.” and I just thought it was a really interesting commercial.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: In the first place I appreciate that they’re trying to include us in an empowering way. There was that real funny commercial during the Super Bowl and- I’m going to forget which brand it was- where the guys were riding down the road were blowing the horn and blowing the horn and flashing their lights and it turns out that they were deaf.


Doug: [laughs]


Debra: I think brands can tell us. As Ekaterina Walter said when we interviewed her, they can humanize the brand so that we do think they’re empathizing with us.


Doug: Absolutely.


Debra: And brands can tell us no. I used the same example the other day, but I had a problem with my Macbook Air and it was all full. I thought, “I guess I just have to buy a new computer.” And I called Apple and talked to a representative named Travis and he’s like, “Well tell me what problems you’re having.” I mean he’s a salesperson selling me a computer and I said, “Well, this, this, this and this.” and he’s like, “Well, you know… I hate to do this but you can actually solve your problem by buying a drive and moving things off of it. You don’t need a computer.”


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: And I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re going to just solve my problem?” and he’s like, “Well, hopefully, you’ll come back and buy more computers from us.” And he gave me his information and I’m definitely an Apple fan now and I have been for a few years. So treating us like you do care about me. I can buy another computer but if I have the same behavior and fill it up again, you know?


Doug: Right.


Debra: So caring about me as an individual- how do you do that as a brand? You don’t do this by dragging us off of the plane kicking and screaming, bloody-


Doug: [laughs] That’s right.


Debra: knocking our teeth out. You don’t say that, “As a passenger, you have no rights and we don’t care. We’re going to drag you off.” That’s a real mess. I was watching a commercial today where Australia is spoofing Pepsi for the misstep they recently had with an advertisement where, apparently, we can solve all of the world’s problems by drinking a Pepsi.


Doug: [laughs] Yeah.


Debra: So Australia was saying that, “Oh good! We can solve climate change.”


Doug: [laughs]


Debra: “Problems in the Middle East…” and at the same time Pepsi has done some pretty empowering beautiful commercials. I know right after the election when so many Americans, including myself, were freaked out, they did a really nice commercial that showed how diverse we all are. Now, they did not include a person with a disability. I would have really liked if they would have included us in there but they were showing different people that appeared to be from different religious backgrounds and it was just the diversity of America which makes us so great.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: And they did a miss on this. I don’t think a Pepsi’s going to solve-


Doug:  We were going back and forth yesterday about all the memes. One of them was: “It’s a Pepsi. We really messed up. No brand could do worse.” And then as United: “Hold my beer.”




Debra: Yes. Yes. The Pepsi thing looks really really tiny compared to-


Doug: Sure does, doesn’t it?


Debra: Yeah.


Doug: Yeah. Sure does.


Debra: I absolutely want to be empathetic about the United brand but I can’t unsee what they did to that passenger. How can I not put myself in that exact position?


Doug: Yeah


Debra: I would have been one of the other three who begrudgingly got off the plane. I’m sure I would have been one of those.


Doug: What was interesting, too is people- I don’t know if you have this experience but a lot of times when I talk to people about branding they think branding is their logo. They spend so much time on the colors and the logo. That’s not what a brand is. United could change the colors of their logo- that’s not going to change their brand. Maybe you could speak to that. What is a brand, Debra? At the end of the day, what is a brand?


Debra: That’s a really, really good question- a really good point because I use the term, and so do a lot of people: brand. I use it often talking about corporations because I work with a lot of corporations.


Doug: Right.


Debra: I think you’re right, Doug. Verizon recently changed their logo.


Doug: Right.


Debra: A couple years ago. It’s not that different but it’s clean. It’s got a little check mark. I don’t care.


Doug: Right.


Debra: I don’t care what your brand looks like. I know people are very protective of their logo but, to me, a brand encompasses who they are. What do we think about their customer service? Do they empathize with us? What are their commercials? If I’m in a situation where I’m engaging with you-  maybe I’m going into your grocery store, I’m flying on your airplane, I’m calling your customer service, I’m engaging with your employees- I can tell really quickly if your employees hate working for you.


Doug: Right.


Debra: How many times have you been in a situation and you’ve been like, “Wow, everybody here seems to hate working here.”? You must treat them so bad and we can tell.


Doug: That’s part of the brand.


Debra: Right. We can tell and I can start (and I’m not going to) naming off brands whose employees seem to hate working for them. [laughs]


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: Some airlines we can put in there.


Doug: Yes.


Debra: Can an employee have a bad day? Absolutely, but we can tell. So I think it’s all of those different things including what your images are telling us. Tell us how you’re a good brand. Tell us how you’re supporting your community.


Doug: Right.


Debra: Are you hiring a diverse workforce? Tell us who you are. What does your foundation (if you have a foundation) invest in?


Doug: Right.


Debra: And are you stacking up trying to take things away from us as a community? Or are you trying to support us? I think brands need to humanize their brand, like Ekaterina said, and they have to also tell us what their doing and what we need to do to respond back as different communities. We need to reward the brands that are including us.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: So if Walgreen is going to employ people with disabilities then I should be shopping with Walgreens instead of brands that don’t. If Target is making sure they’re including models with disabilities in their advertising- I’m going to support Target. If Tommy Hilfiger is going to have an entire adaptive line of clothing for adults and children then I’m going to buy Tommy Hilfiger.


Doug: Right.


Debra: But we need to take the extra step and we need to tell these brands why we’re supporting them.


Doug:But a brand, at the end of the day, is everything that you do. It’s what people are saying about you when you’re not around. I’ll just tell you a quick story. One of the people I work with is a dentist and I know you’ve met him.


Debra: Yes, he’s a great guy.


Doug: He was telling me a story about his brand and about how he tells people, “Everyone we touch is part of our brand.” There was an elderly woman who knew she was dying of cancer and she reached out to the front desk receptionist and said, “I don’t have a lot of family and I know this sounds really weird but I’ve been coming here for like 35 years.”


Debra: Wow.


Doug: “Could you visit me at my home and just come by and say ‘Hello’? I just don’t have anyone.” Kind of weird, right? So she went to this woman’s house and brought some flowers and went to speak to her and the woman actually passed away while she was there. I think she just didn’t want to die alone.


Debra: Right.


Doug: She went back to the office. The family found out about this. She didn’t even say anything, of course. He said, “That’s unbelievable. You don’t think we could have that kind of impact- that a front desk receptionist could have that kind of impact- to say, ‘I feel so comfortable that I would reach out to my dental office’.” That’s kind of the power of human connection and if we trust the brand and we feel connected to them, we’re going to stay with them forever.


Debra: I agree. Even if you charge me more money


Doug: Even if you charge me more money! Doesn’t matter.


Debra: I’m going to stay with you.


Doug: Right. Right.


Debra: Somebody had said on Twitter that if United charged a dollar less Americans will still do it, regardless of what happens. I don’t think that’s true.


Doug: No.


Debra: There has been some very interesting studies showing that, especially the younger people- the Millennials, the Gen X and Y’s- they will actually spend more money to do business with brands. I think everybody is doing that.


Doug: Right, right. Yeah, that’s a big mistake. I hope United doesn’t think, “Well, we’ll just lower our prices and we’ll get you back.”


Debra: No.


Doug: Not that simple. You’re not going to price your way out of this one.


Debra: And I also hope that all airlines look at this and stop that overbooking stuff and deciding that the passengers are less valuable than the employees. It was an impossible situation. I feel bad for everybody, too.


Doug: You know what I would love to see? I would love to see the CEO- or whoever they decide to send but I think it has to be the CEO- go on a listening tour and say, “You know what? We really messed up and we want to hear from people what you want and how we can improve.” And go on a listening tour around all these locations and really listen to passengers. I think that’s the only thing. It’s like any relationship. You can repair a relationship but you have to feel like the other person hears what went wrong.


Debra: Right. Right. I used to say to my kids (and they got really sick of me saying this) when one of them hit the other or something when they were little, “Apologize.” Then they would say, “Well, I’m sorry, but…” and then explain why they were right.


Doug: [laughs]


Debra: Nope. I don’t want an “apology-but”.


Doug: Right.


Debra: “It’s not an ‘apology-but’, mom.” Well, it is though and you can tell whether or not it’s authentic. Am I making you do it? Because we can tell if it’s authentic or not.


Doug: Right. “I’m sorry we had to remove that unruly passenger.” [laughs]


Debra: Right. Right. That was just a ridiculous situation. Some of the airlines are getting it but (I won’t say who) I was just on a flight and there was five of us on this international flight. Two of our family members are vegans and we went online and we appropriately, in the time length requested, we ordered two vegan meals and when we checked in at the gate they said, “Oh, you have two vegans.” and I said, “Yes, I do. I have two vegans.” We get on the plane and they start serving the meals and the flight attendants don’t have it and they’re like, “We don’t know what to do.” and they’re trying to scramble to make sure because this particular flight was eight and a half hours.


Doug: Oh. Yeah, yeah.


Debra: And so I get to the destination and I go to the desk and I say, “This happened even though I had done it right.” and “Can we make sure this doesn’t happen on the way home?” “Oh, we’re so sorry. We have a new system.” They were very empathetic. Did all the things. Bottom line is the exact same thing happened on the way home even though we checked every single way. One of the flight attendants got cheeky and said, “Well, we don’t offer these kinds of meals.” Well, your website says you do so maybe you should connect with the rest of your airline to decide whether or not you’re going to because you say you do so don’t tell us you can’t. Once again, it wasn’t United and I won’t name the airline but I won’t fly on that airline ever again either. Talking about a good story: Lufthansa.


Doug: I love Lufsthansa!


Debra: I love them and I flew with them to Egypt and Sarah and I showed up in Cairo for our flight and it was 4pm. I mean it was 4 o’clock. So, you know, being an American where we have two 4 o’clocks I showed up at the more reasonable 4pm and they’re like, “No, no, no. That’s not-” I have to think it’s thirteen, fourteen, fifteen- it’s sixteen. So I missed my flight by 12 hours and they could charge me $500 for that mistake. It says it in the fine print.


Doug: Right.


Debra: But they were very empathetic with me- you know, this American who doesn’t know what time it was- and they didn’t charge me anything and they were really kind about it and I thought, “Ok. Thank you for caring about us.” I felt very grateful that they did that.


Doug: That’s wonderful and I think some of the takeaways here for us as consumers, like you’ve always said, that as a community we need to rewards brands that do the right thing because we drive behavior. We have to realize that we drive brands. You know, one of the things that’s great about United is the fact that people stood up and said this is wrong-


Debra: Right.


Doug: this is inhumane and we’re not going to tolerate it and I guarantee you that one billion dollars later in losses other airlines and other brands are looking at that and saying, “You know what? Maybe we won’t drag elderly Asian men out.”


Debra: Yeah. Breaking their teeth out and traumatizing all of the passengers on that plane.


Doug: Right. Right.


Debra:           And then saying, “Well, don’t worry about it if you’re overbooked. If you’re in first-class or business class you don’t have to worry about it.”


Doug: “Just follow the rules and you won’t be injured.”


Debra: Right.


Doug:  I mean, that is essentially what they were saying.


Debra: Right!


Doug: Especially their initial reaction was, “Well, if you don’t want your teeth knocked out and have a concussion, then just follow the rules.”


Debra: Yeah. It was awful and I hope a lot of these airlines start realizing that we are their passengers and we are their clients.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: We have choices. Stop this behavior that’s been going on for a long time. I’ll tell you, Doug, speaking from the perspective of people with disabilities, we have seen some awful things happen.


Doug: Oh, I’m sure.


Debra: There was an expert that travels all over the world talking about global disability issues. One airline decided they were too disabled to travel, all of a sudden, when this person travels all the time. Then there is “I’m not going to let your [service] dog on.” There has been some really terrible things that are happening to passengers with disabilities all over the world and it’s time to treat all passengers as if we mattered and that we’re valuable.


Doug: And all people, right?


Debra: Right.


Doug: When we talk about Human Potential, I mean all people. I think we have to realize how much power we have.


Debra: Right.


Doug: Because brands have reputation management, they do care about if we gather together and we say this is good or this is bad, likewise, either way you’ve always said that if we beat up brands when they do the wrong thing we got to reward them when they do the right thing. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from you, Debra. So we do have a lot of power and the power of social media and the power of community, right? Even just in this Facebook group a lot of times people will share resources with each other and share: “This is a brand that I like”, “This is something I use because this is important to me.” I think that’s what’s so great about the community that you created- that it’s a place where people can come together and have their voice heard.


Debra: You can just tell who a brand is by the way they talk to you- by the way they engage with you.


Doug: Yeah.


Debra: Are they engaging with you? Barclay’s bank is another example of an amazing brand. They’re doing such a good job of engaging with people.I fly Delta Airlines a lot and I always am snapping a picture and posting it and they’re very gracious in engaging back and forth. It amazes me when brands don’t engage with their customers. So I think, once again, we have a lot of branding lessons to learn from this awful, awful situation with United Airlines and we’ll continue these conversations but I think we need to have these conversations, Doug, and we need to have the good and the bad conversations. So we can help brands understand that you really do need to humanize your brand and engage more appropriately with us and don’t drag us off and break our teeth out and stuff like that.


Doug: Exactly and if you’re listening to us, afterwards, please put your comments underneath. We want to hear from you. We want to hear what your thoughts are. Also, one thing I’d like to hear from people is about timing. When would be the best time for these Facebook Lives for you for? I’d love to hear from people about what days or times would work best for you. Put that in the comments below.


Debra: I agree. Yes and once again, join us on Human Potential at Work on Facebook.


Doug: That’s right.


Debra: We’d love to have you as part of the community. So, Doug, thank you for this experiment. It was fun and a very tough topic, but a very important topic. Let the brands listen. Make sure they’re engaging with us in human ways and as for communities: if a brand is taking time to truly include us, let’s reward them by talking positively about them on social media, writing to their CEOs, getting engaged with their brands and celebrating the brands that are doing it right.


Doug:  Amen.


Debra: So thank you so much, Doug.


Doug: Thank you, Debra. Always a pleasure.


Debra:  I agree.

[outro music]


You’ve been listening to Human Potential at Work with Debra Ruh. To learn more about Debra and how she can help your organization visit RuhGlobal.com. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and you want to make sure that you don’t miss any future epsiodes, go to itunes and subscribe to Human Potential at Work. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.