Values blindness led United astray

United found out what can happen when brands betray their values.

The leanest definition of a brand – the one I always try to work with – is: "A product or service plus values and associations." 

True, some technical details get left out that the longer definitions strive to accommodate, such as the signifying "name, symbol or trademark", but the sacrifice is worth it. The beauty of brevity is that it focuses the mind on the essentials – and on the decisions marketers face in resolving the tensions between them. 

We talk a lot about consistency in branding but, looking at that definition, it’s clear that the two elements at the beginning and end are in pretty much constant motion, and need to be.

If branded products and services never changed, we’d still be driving Ford Cortinas, watching Sony Trinitron TVs and snacking on Spam. Retail brands wouldn’t have worked out how to sell over the internet. Instead, driving innovation is, and always has been, one of the thrills of brand stewardship. "New" is the oldest word in our lexicon.

Associations don’t stand still, either. Fresh celebrities come on board, brave new campaigns get launched, breaking stories get revealed and stick to the brand – for good or bad. Social media has merely served to hot up what was always a dynamic part of the discipline.

But the bit in the middle of that lean definition – values – well, that’s a different matter. This is where brands are steadfast, or at least should be – sticking to what they believe in, holding an ethical line, staying true to a "way" – no matter how tough the going gets.

Values are forever. They are the part of the brand that makes it it, from one decade to the next. Products and services may come and go, associations flower and fade, but change at the level of values would be as disconcerting in a brand as it is in a person: it makes us feel like we didn’t really know them, after all.

There is a flip side to this desired constancy: inside the organisation, inside marketing departments, values tend to be the least discussed and thought-about element of the brands we work on. There’s something about the human psyche that makes it sit up to change, notice the new; when a feature stays the same – day in, day out – it becomes invisible. 

It’s not as though social media can help much here. No-one’s out there tweeting: "Nope, no change in our values again today."  Or: "Happy New Year. Our values are still trust, courage and humanity, just like the last 39."

I’ve seen chief executives strive to counter this blindness by putting values statements up around the workplace, big and bold. It’s better than nothing – but what you see on a daily basis is easily ignored after about day three.

Modern HR departments tackle values in a more progressive way – by linking them to what they call "behaviours". It is a word that reminds me of the school playground but a worthwhile tactic, nonetheless, for making the abstract concrete and getting people to see practical ways to put values into operation in their day-to-day roles. 

The trouble is, there are always some people who don’t get the memo. They tend not to be the ones "down" the organogram, but very much "up". And it’s there, at the giddy heights of corporate leadership, that values integrity really counts. One slip and you’re dead. Or the brand is.

Which airline has "We fly right" as its number-one value? Which airline follows that with "We fly friendly: warm and welcoming is who we are"? No prizes for the right answer. 

It’s hard to blame the United Airlines cabin crew for their part in the debacle at Chicago. Even if they knew their values backwards, they had a protocol to follow once directed from above to lose a few passengers. 

Further up the managerial line, it’s harder to defend decisions. Who concluded that United employees needing to be at the flight’s destination for work the next day were more important than paying passengers needing to do the same? Where was the value of "We fly above and beyond" then?

What busted the brand, though, was the immediate response from the very top. The chief executive’s obtuse language – "reaccommodate", "deplane" – is a million miles from warm and friendly. Yes, he was caught out by the desire to defend his staff, but he will forever regret referring to the ejected Dr Dao as "belligerent". One brief glimpse at the values that he himself presented to United employees earlier this year would have made him pause. Instead, blindness and bravado held sway.

Brand values are the natural place for HR and marketing to join forces – and to use their clout to take basic training not just to the ground troops but to the commanding heights. Perhaps we should consider a "war games" approach, where disaster scenarios are unveiled and responses rehearsed by senior management, with values underpinning every move.

It could have saved them at United. As it is, this "product or service" has traduced its values – and, for a very long time, the image of a mild doctor of Vietnamese ethnicity being dragged and knocked senseless down the aisle of a grounded United Airlines jet will be an instant brand association. 

Top five values

The five most frequently cited values of the 30 most valuable global brands according to the latest Millward Brown BrandZ rankings:

1 Customer-focused 
Ten mentions: AT&T, The Home Depot, ICBC, Toyota, Deutsche Telekom, Alibaba, Amazon, GE, Wells Fargo, Nike

2 Innovation
Nine mentions: Microsoft, AT&T, Amazon, IBM, Tencent, Disney, Nike, Vodafone, Toyota

3= Trust
Eight mentions: Microsoft, AT&T, Amazon, IBM, China Mobile, Mastercard, Vodafone, UPS

3= Integrity
Eight mentions: AT&T, Verizon, Tencent, Coca-Cola, UPS, Alibaba, Deutsche Telekom, ICBC

5 Inclusion and diversity
Five mentions: Apple, Microsoft, Starbucks, The Home Depot, Toyota


Helen Edwards is a former PPA business columnist of the year, has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand 

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