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United launches new campaign to shake final vestiges of troublesome 2010s

Date: May 16, 2022

By David Slotnick, The Points Guy

United Airlines is gearing up for a major ad campaign with a new message: “Good Leads The Way.”

United plans to launch the campaign on Monday as part of an effort to frame itself as an industry leader and innovator as travel demand continues to roar back from the COVID-19 pandemic and as the airline looks to a busy decade ahead that will feature a fleet renewal and refresh — part of its “United Next” plan — alongside growing sustainability goals.

The campaign also comes as United looks to shrug off the final remnants of the major reputational hit it endured throughout the 2010s, with complaints about customer experience following the 2010 merger with Continental, and multiple scandals contributing to difficulties and a leadership shuffle.

It’s a turnaround that’s taken years of work and been a substantial goal of the airline’s leadership, United’s chief financial officer Gerry Laderman said during a recent event at the Wings Club in New York City (before the new campaign was announced).

“It starts with the culture, and over the last five, six years, that’s really been the focus,” Laderman said. “What we needed to do as a leadership team was to regain the trust of our employees and our customers. And if you regain the trust of your employees in the service industry, you regain the trust of the customer.”

Now, the “Good Leads The Way” campaign — which was developed with creative agency 72andSunny — focuses on several different areas, including a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the company’s early-career pilot recruiting, sustainability efforts, its vaccine requirements during the pandemic and, crucially, its current customer service and passenger experience features.

The airline and agency created over 150 pieces of content, a representative said, including television and digital ads, social media content, banners and more.

Among passenger experience-focused ads, the airline highlighted its new “United Next” interiors which the airline says will feature enough overhead space for every passenger to bring a carry-on bag, as well as its “Connection Saver” program and its policy eliminating change fees, which United introduced during the pandemic before being followed by American and Delta.

The campaign also features 32 different employees, a spokesperson said.

In recent years, United has aggressively promoted success stories and communicated customer-friendly moves, enhancing its focus on social media influencers and briefing media frequently ahead of impending announcements.

The broader turnaround effort partly began under former CEO Oscar Munoz, who became CEO in 2015. The momentum has continued under current CEO Scott Kirby, who took the reins in 2020. In 2018, United hired former Obama administration press secretary Josh Earnest as its chief communications officer.

The reputational turnaround, which accelerated during the pandemic, is remarkable considering the previous decade.

While grumblings about United gained steam following the merger with Continental in 2010, a series of episodes later in the decade caused particular hurt to the airline’s reputation.

In 2015, then-CEO Jeff Smisek stepped down amid an alleged bribery scandal involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Smisek was never charged with wrongdoing, and the Port Authority chairman, David Samson, was convicted of a felony for attempting to coerce United to keep an unprofitable route in place between Newark and South Carolina, where Samson owned a home). Smisek was replaced by Munoz

In 2017, the airline made headlines after a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was injured while being violently removed from an oversold flight from Chicago O’Hare airport. Initial statements by the airline and then-CEO Oscar Munoz were contradicted by eyewitnesses and viral video from the incident.

The following year, the airline was in the news again after a flight attendant allegedly forced a passenger to place a puppy in an airline-compliant carrier into the overhead bin during a flight from Houston (IAH) to LaGuardia (LGA), rather than under the seat in front of her. The dog died during the flight, the second time in a year that a dog traveling with the airline died during a flight after allegedly being mishandled by airline staff.

With the new proactive brand campaign, United seems to be seeking to focus on the future — and its improved standing among its competitors.

Advertisements from the campaign will appear on television and streaming platforms, in airports, aboard aircraft, on social media, and otherwise out in the world on billboards and other static displays.

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