By now, everyone has seen and discussed the United Airlines debacle. And while most of the conversation has centered around the horrible PR response and speculation over settlement amounts, few if any are discussing the fact that this might be the best example of top-to-bottom brand failure in recent memory.

As noted throughout this site, a brand is not something created by ad agencies from the outside-in. A brand is the experience, both anticipated and lived, created by the organization from the inside-out. It starts at the top with purpose (skopós) and vision and is carried forth by the team who understand, embrace and execute the vision. In United’s case, from the CEO to the gate and flight crew to the social media response team, the brand is 100% consistent. Normally, this is a good thing. But United told the world through its actions and words that United passengers are there to serve the airline rather than vice versa. In other words, just because your brand claims to be “the friendly skies” doesn’t make it your brand.

If you own or manage a business there are two things you need to do to avoid a United moment. The first is to imagine how and where a similar incident could take place in your organization. While you can’t imagine ever having that sort of meltdown with a customer, it happened at United and it can happen in your business. Is your purpose and vision defined for your organization so that your “gate agents” and “flight attendants” can embrace and live it as their own? And do they? Do you have the right people on board in the first place? Remember Jim Collins in Good to Great: “First who, then what.” And is everyone keeping their eye on the same ball? Finally, how well have you anticipated and prepared for all of the “what if” scenarios. Like having mistakenly allowed passengers to board before you have your bumps taken care of.

The second task is to have a plan in place just in case it’s not as well defined and shared as you think or in case someone takes his or her eye off the ball. Imagine the sirens at American Airlines when videos of a crying customer holding babies and a flight attendant challenging a passenger to take a swing at him hit the web on the heels of the United mess. Their reaction was as if there was a PR memo entitled, “This is what United should have said and done” that someone quickly pulled from their inbox and ran with.

When defining your purpose and vision, it’s critical to visualize the primary beneficiaries. When it’s shareholders, you might make more money in the short-term but you will likely have a United (or American) moment at some point. And while creating compelling value for consumers is almost always a winning play, it’s not the only one.

Case Dorman, Owner and CEO of Kansas City’s famous Jack Stack Barbecue, recently surprised a group of business leaders by saying that his vision does not put the customer first. “I put my employees first and they know it,” he said. “I figure if they know I’m taking good care of them, they’ll take good care of our customers.”

It seems to be working. Jack Stack’s growth has exceeded all expectations. And they now ship barbecue to all 50 states and have even been rated #1 in the U.S. by Zagat. Perhaps they should ship some burnt ends and advice to United.



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