In 4 short words United Airlines just explained how it really wants you to feel

The way the brain processed memories is weird. We don’t remember facts as accurately as we think. Even eyewitness memories are highly fallible.

But you know what we do remember? As the late poet Maya Angelou put it: ‘feelings’.

This is especially true for business. And it prompts people to behave differently than they would otherwise. Examples:

  • You remember a movie or a show fondly, and you’re excited to see it on TV. But when you look at it again, you realize it wasn’t really anything special. Why did you think it would be? Because you saw it with friends and had a great time; you associated the feelings with the movie.
  • Or you think back to a long-forgotten job, to a time in your life that you remember with nostalgia. Maybe the work wasn’t really the best use of your time and talents, and didn’t pay off enough. Why do you remember it so positively? Because you had great colleagues and you associated the good feelings you had for them with that time.
  • It can also go the other way: you switch banks or dry cleaners or even where you get your morning coffee. It’s not because they are incompetent or don’t normally provide good service. It is because of a single bad experience that leads you to associate an unwelcome feeling with the brand.

Sometimes people develop feelings for brands in an organic way. But sometimes it happens because companies make a concerted effort to make people feel a certain way about them.

All of this brings us to our example: the new brand advertising campaign United Airlines unveiled last week—the first new campaign in a decade.

It starts with a four-word tagline: “Good Leads the Way.”

I admit I paused when I first heard the tagline. The feeling I associated with it was honestly a bit of confusion. “Good?” “Good ‘what?'”

And by the way, why not “Great?”

But if I dig a little deeper, I think I understand what United are trying to do here. Let’s start by explaining United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby:

“In recent years, United has emerged as a force for good and a market leader.

We are taking actions that bring pride to our employees and customers – everything from historic investments to fight climate change and train more women and people of color to become pilots, to phasing out change and upgrading our fleet with 500 new aircraft.

This campaign serves not only as an exclamation point to our recent actions, but also as a commitment to how United Airlines plans to appear in the future.”

There’s a lot to unpack, practically speaking. I’m not going to list every part; you can see everything in United’s official announcement, here† And somehow I also can’t guarantee that United have really lived up to what it claims here.

But as a business exercise, let’s summarize some of the key aspects:

  • Employees: United touts things like the fact that it’s the only major U.S. airline to have its own pilot training school, plus the steps it’s taken with a COVID-19 vaccination program for employees and a commitment to “careers, not just jobs.” “
  • Customers: The airline includes its plans to purchase 500 new aircraft, the elimination of change fees, its technology designed to make passengers less likely to miss connections, and the airline’s vastly expanded transatlantic flights.
  • Communities: Plans to hire more than 50,000 people over the next five years, plus train 5,000 new pilots, “with the goal that at least half will be women and people of color,” along with its efforts to fight climate change and promote sustainability.

As selling points, these can be found more or less all over the map, and may seem disjointed, save for United’s attempt to group them all under one theme, such as being “a force for good.”

Why do it? In part, it’s an assessment, as United Airlines Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest told me, that customers of the future will ask about an airline’s track record on climate change, or its efforts to promote diversity, before they decide whether to do business with them.

“We know that people choose an airline based on things like price and schedule, and [asking] ‘is it non-stop?'” Earnest told me. “This is another reason for people to choose an airline. And we think it’s for a very good reason.”

But I think this recognizes that a campaign like this couldn’t work if the underlying structure wasn’t there.

No matter what feelings customers may develop about the “goodness” of an airline, they wouldn’t be able to fly without passengers flying safely and comfortably from point A to point B.

Look, I’m writing about airlines here for two reasons. The first and obvious one is simply because so many business leaders are frequent flyers too.

But the other reason is more poignant. It is that the major airlines are fierce competitors in a commodity industry. They all basically sell the same thing: space on flights from one place to another.

That means they can differentiate themselves by making small incremental changes to their product, or by taking big steps to try and change their entire image, or the feelings their passengers and potential passengers have about them.

It’s all covered by more journalists, analysts, and investors than perhaps any other industry. And, as I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Classit turns the entire industry into a non-stop parade of case studies and advice for anyone running a different kind of business.

United’s brand campaign is a perfect example of this.

You may not be in the airline industry. But can you imagine how you could improve your business by making potential customers feel a certain way about you?

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not’s.