United Breaks Content

by jdn74 on January 3, 2013

Airline Cabin with Emergency Bars on All Screens

[Unedited Image Credit: joseasreyes]

Anyone with their ear to the Intertubes and an eye for viral content already knows that United Breaks Guitars. And anyone who has flown commercially in the past decade knows that United (and every other airline) breaks our wallets with their baggage fees and first-born-child-for-a-bag-of-peanuts pricing. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they break other things as well.

I came across an article this past spring on how United broke check-in when it switched over to using its acquisition, Continental’s, reservation systems. And that in turn reminded me of a flight I took two summers ago where United broke something else…


Taking the Red-Eye

It was around 11pm and I was buckled in at my window seat, ready for my red-eye flight from Seattle to Newark. The television monitors came on, but before the standard safety tutorial played, passengers were treated to a personal message from United’s CEO.

He walked onto a stage with a dark blue curtain in the background and bad lighting overhead. I noted immediately that the production quality on the video was very poor. The full scope of his message escapes me two years later, but at the time, I felt compelled to take notes on the particularly salient discrepancies between the video content, its likely purpose, and its audience.

First, a brief recap of the video as I recall it:

The CEO started out by giving praise to United’s 80,000+ employees.

Next, he told the audience that United and Continental were proceeding with their merger. He noted that as part of this merger many of their planes had already been repainted.

Then he explained that United will be adding its Economy+ standard of seating to many of Continental’s jets.

He closed with the assurance, “We are aligning our products and services to better serve you. We know we have to earn your business. Thank you for choosing United.”

I wish I could embed the full video here, to give you a better sense of just how cringe-worthy it was, but I couldn’t locate it anywhere online. I imagine it was worse for me than for any of the passengers around me (if they were even paying attention) because at the time I was reading Clout by Colleen Jones.



An in-depth, clear approach to creating, publishing, and managing influential content, Clout is far too rich to summarize in full here. But one particular chapter is useful for analyzing the United video.

In Chapter Three, “Context: Where Clout Begins and Ends,” Jones tackles the issue of planning for effective content. She argues that to do so well, one must understand its context (the gestalt around a piece of content) and introduces her version of the 5 W’s to describe that gestalt.

Why are you creating this piece of content (or What outcome do you hope to achieve)?

According to Jones, content planning begins here, asking what result you hope to achieve for your business or cause by creating and publishing a particular piece of content. The answer usually consists in one of two broad outcomes – getting someone to take action or changing their attitude about your brand.

Who is the audience you are targeting?

Who (age, gender, job title, etc…) are you trying to persuade or inform with your content? If you already have personas that detail your target audience(s), the next step is to detail what synergies and gaps currently exist between your brand and them. For example, if you’re a new brand, then a likely major gap is that of awareness and content that introduces you to the consumer should be a goal.

What is your brand identity (or Who are you)?

Of course, to introduce yourself to the consumer, you must know who you are first. Does your organization have a mission statement? Have you conducted a brand audit? Do you know which brand attributes or qualities you want to highlight in your content?

When will this content be delivered?

This is a fairly straight-forward question. Timing can be time of day (e.g. an infomercial airing in the middle of the night), season (summer, Christmas), or special event (the Super Bowl). Timing also covers things like what is happening in the world currently or which market trends are currently prevalent, both of which can also affect the substance and delivery of your content.

Where will this content be delivered?

What is the medium for presentation? Web presentation of text and graphics will differ stylistically from that for print or television, for example. And if content is being shared via a particular forum, say a social media channel, that community will have its own etiquette and expectations for your content and how it is presented.

Asking (and answering) these simple questions prior to creating a piece of content or a series of collateral is essential if you want that content to be influential. Now that we’ve examined Jones’ 5 W’s of effective content, let’s review the United videotape to see why it struck such a note of discord with me.


United’s Broken Content

When, Where, and for Whom was this content delivered?

The when and where for this particular piece of content is pretty clear:

When: Prior to takeoff

Where: In an airline cabin

To Whom: A captive audience of airline passengers.

One could argue whether the time and place is a good choice given the stresses of air travel and the likely interest and attention span of the travelers, but nonetheless that’s what United chose. And while “To Whom?” was easy to answer, “For whom?” is a trickier question and gets to the heart of some of the problems with this video. Three different moments suggest three different audiences.

The video opens by praising all 80,000 of United’s employees. My first thought was “Why do I have to listen to this?” My second thought was that the majority of United employees are probably not flight attendants, but flight attendants were the only ones who would get to see the cabin video. United must have a better method of communicating with its employees.

Then the CEO turned to a second potential audience to talk about how well the merger was going. This could’ve have been customers, but at first seemed aloof and businessey, like he was reassuring shareholders.

Only then did he turn to topics that might interest actual paying customers — the fliers to whom his brand, and this content representing that brand, was being presented.

What aspects of their brand identity were they highlighting?

And right off the bat, he blew that too.

The first thing he highlighted was how many of United’s planes had recently been repainted. My immediate and incredulous reaction was “Why do I care what the outside of a plane looks like?” I fly on the inside. I want a clean, pleasant, and if-at-all-possible comfortable interior of the plane. That is what matters to me as a paying customer.

The CEO proceeded to say that many of Continental’s planes were going to be refitted with United Economy+ seating, which offered wider seats and more legroom. Of course, this seating is a special section near the front of the plane, similar to First Class, and costs more per ticket. So essentially, the CEO was offering some additional seats to those who could afford to pay for them. Not really a broadly appealing brand message.

Finally, he ended his statements by claiming, “We are aligning our products and services to better serve you. We know we have to earn your business. Thank you for choosing United.” Given how off message the rest of the video was, these were just words, mere platitudes and corporate gibberish that did not align with any of the information he had just presented. A fitting, ambiguous ending for a very ambiguous piece of corporate content.

Why did United create this piece of content?

So why did United make this video and play it to a captive audience of its flying customers? The short answer is “Who Knows?” One could surmise that it was meant as some sort of progress report on its merger with Continental — that would be a safe bet. There was likely also some intent to reassure its customers that the merger would not affect the standard of service they were used to (whatever that standard might be), though this was never clearly stated.

Even if they had a clear intention at the outset, by the time they finished, what was left was a Frankenstein monster of mangled W’s stitched together into a shambling wreck of a video. But perhaps the content was mangled because United has no clue what its customers actually want, and therefore, no idea how to talk to them.

I was so dumbfounded by the statement about the planes being painted that I did a little research. I dug up an article in the Houston Chronicle that discussed how the United merger was bringing in lots of business to local plane painters. A brief excerpt:

Getting the airplanes repainted quickly is part of the merged company’s branding efforts. One of the things passengers notice is the name and logo emblazoned on a plane.

“’I’m sure that they want to have the new brand out there. They want the customers to see it’s the new United Airlines,’ said [a consultant].”

So mentioning the paint jobs really was a sincere branding effort. United believes its fliers care what the outside of the plane looks like. If they are that out of touch, it’s no wonder their content sucks.


More Than Words

Ultimately, content needs to be more than just words. Whether on the page or on the screen, it must align with how your brand manifests in the real world. And to be effective, it must align with the true needs and desires of your customers.

After the video ended and the safety protocols were finished, I started to feel a little drowsy. It was a red-eye after all. So I flagged down an attendant and requested a pillow. She informed me that the plane didn’t carry any.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many pillows the money wasted on that video could have purchased and how much more tangible a brand statement that would have been.

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