United vs. Delta: A Closer Look at How Unethical Marketing Destroys Consumer Relationships With Brands

The advantages of the technical age have required brands to evolve. Brands are no longer empty and emotionless faces of the products or services that they offer. They are now living and breathing functions of what their services or products do for their consumers. The issue of unethical marketing can be debated outside of the realm of flat out lying to consumers. One camp could argue that the responsibility ultimately lies with the consumer so there can be no ethical debate in terms of marketing. If we look at the regulations levied on the tobacco industry as an example, more than 100 countries have banned some form of tobacco marketing. McDonalds has come under serious fire for marketing to minorities almost exclusively. Why? Effective marketing is based on the science of human behavior, which is then used to help companies appeal to what we like and teach us what to like. So when we have epidemics such as obesity and lung cancer that are killing people, regulations must be levied and the ethical debate begins.

Now, with that said, I want to look at some milder grievances that are not necessarily killing people but do cause serious issues in the brand reputation space within the marketplace.

Unethical marketing practices put unnecessary strain on employees because they are constantly dealing with the blow back of marketing campaigns that breed frustrated consumers. These situations can grow to the point of aggression, which can lead to violent and dangerous confrontations with employees.

This is How Unethical Marketing Destroys Relationships at the Brand Level

  1. It makes employees and customers feel powerless
  2. Consumers feel tricked, lied to and used
  3. It creates distrust in both consumers and employees that is difficult to rebuild

I had a recent experience where I felt jolted by a brand that didn’t have a great reputation to begin with. I imagine that it’s kind of like a friend that is notorious for showing up late but you think to yourself ‘well, maybe this time will be different.’

Welcome to the New World of “Basic Economy”

I travelled to Los Angeles on a United Airlines Basic Economy ticket recently. This was the first time that I have ever used this type of ticket on United and I was initially elated because the cost was so low. I first realized that airlines were even doing this type of thing when I tried to cancel a Delta ticket late last year and I was told that I bought the ‘type’ of ticket that couldn’t be refunded. To my surprise I didn’t realize that there were even different ticket types but lo and behold this does exist now. Luckily that was the only stipulation and I was  pleasantly surprised that my experience flying on Delta was so positive. Before we dig into the United Airlines story, let’s look at Delta so that we can see what a well designed flight discount program not only looks like but feels like in the eyes of a consumer.

When it comes to successfully marketing new flight discount initiatives, the only thing that airlines have to do in order to be successful is create an initiative that makes customers not regret paying full price for a ticket…easy right?

Delta Delight

  • Check-in: Check-in was easy. Delta reminded me to check-in for my flight via email and the user interface of the app and website was easy to navigate. This made me feel like Delta as a brand cared about me checking in on-time. Wow!
  • Restricted Tickets: Although I bought a restricted ticket at a lower fare, the only hang-up is that there are no refunds and you have to eat the cost of the ticket if you do decide to cancel. Although I wish that this had been communicated in a clearer way (maybe an alert or acknowledgement pop-up when you book this type of ticket) I didn’t feel conned. It’s usually about $200.00 to change a ticket anyway and since the ticket was around $200.00, I was fine with that.
  • Customer Service: The biggest thing that stood out to me when calling Delta customer service was that they kept me updated on the hold time while I was holding. This made me feel like Delta respects their customers time.
  • Flight: My flight was great. Spacious window seats both to and from LGA and a wonderful crew. The Flight Attendant gave me two snacks and I was amazed. While I was walking off the plane I noticed that one of the pilots was there with the Flight Attendant greeting passengers as they deplaned. I was moved by this for some odd reason and I didn’t realize the positive way it impacted me as a customer until Delta sent out this survey that asked how I felt about their seats, snacks and asked if a pilot greeted me when I deplaned. I guess it just made me feel at home and valued.

I was touched not only by what I experienced but the follow-up afterwards and I can’t stop telling people about it. Before I even got to the airport I was dealing with the brand in terms of their processes in:

  • Marketing a lower fare and the value of that fare
  • Overall communication and updates
  • My digital experience

What made this lower fare ticket work is that it was simple and the low-fare matched the cost of an older policy that people are familiar with. They didn’t pile on restrictions and hidden fees and make it more complicated. It was a cheap ticket…awesome. Then they went above that and instilled other processes that made me feel that even though I bought a cheaper ticket, I was still respected as a paying customer. After all, a customer is a customer.

United Unpleasantries

  • Check-in: I didn’t receive a reminder. Not the end of the world but would have definitely gone the extra mile for me. When I did check-in on the app I was asked if I wanted to volunteer to move to a different flight. This made me feel very nervous considering it seemed like the type of ticket that I bought placed me at the bottom of the totem pole already. My digital experience also wasn’t great. I spent a good amount of time roaming helplessly through the app.
  • Restricted Tickets: United’s Basic Economy ticket is difficult to understand and there are a lot of rules surrounding your carry-on luggage that may or may not be enforced. The rules were strictly enforced on a flight that I had from Los Angeles to Chicago but not from my Chicago to Los Angeles flight. They seemed to try and communicate things but the overall issue is that they are trying to make up the money lost on the ticket and this over complicates the ‘good deal.’
    • You are only able to take a fairly small purse, which is not thoroughly explained until you check-in. United did send a separate email explaining the basic economy rules that I had to read a few times to make sure that I understood everything as there were quite a few details. What I finally gathered from the email was that I had to pay $30.00 dollars for a roller board and any other second carry-on and that the ticket was non-refundable. I assumed once I paid the $30.00 fee I was free to bring a second carry-on through security and onto the plane. In an effort to travel lighter, I decided to bring a second tote versus a roller board.
    • All went as I interpreted in Chicago. I paid the bag fee and took my bags through security. In Los Angeles it was an entirely different story. I learned that:
      • If you manage to bring a second bag of any type to the gate, you would be charged an additional $25.00 on top of the $30.00 that you already paid.
      • Your second bag MUST be under the plane and checked even if it’s not a roller board (if you have even two purses you have to check one).
      • If you want to upgrade your ticket it starts at $100.00 and goes up from there.
      • United personnel at the airport cannot do the upgrade for you. You MUST call reservations in order to complete this.
  • Customer Service: I spoke to 4 different United reps at LAX to put this all together. I decided to bite the bullet and call reservations to upgrade my ticket. I was on hold for 40 minutes with reservations and I was given no indication of wait time. I was forced to check my beautiful cream colored tote with breakable mugs and my DSLR camera. The reps that I dealt with were very nice but have been made powerless by the structure of the new Basic Economy program.
  • Flight: By the time I got onto the flight everything was tainted. I did have a somewhat decent flight both to and from my destination, despite the fact that I was in a bulkhead seat beside the bathroom to really send the message home that I paid less money for my ticket.

United is making an attempt to compete with airlines such as Spirit and Delta by offering a seemingly low-cost fare but has tacked on so many hidden fees that you end up paying just as much as a regular ticket if not more and feel treated like a low-class citizen in the world of United Airlines.

People see this marketing tactic and jump on it but in the end feel conned, tricked and abused by the brand. It bothered me that someone thought up the entire marketing stunt of Basic Economy travel, which causes far more headaches for both employees and travelers versus not having it at all. The value of the ticket did not come close to matching the idea that I was originally sold. I would have rather bought the more expensive ticket than be buried alive by hidden fees.

So what is to be learned from all of this?

Marketing initiatives that lack interaction and basic human care for your customers, that are also designed to take without offering anything in return, is the ultimate embodiment of unethical marketing. Brands that direct and/or allow their marketing teams to concoct such programs etc. are setting up their organizations to fail miserably.

In order for any new program or initiative to be successful, we have to create an overall program structure and communication system that is easily digestible by the consumer because when it comes to marketing, at the end of the day, truth becomes a matter of what the consumer understands about your brand and the way it makes them feel as an individual.

When it comes to marketing, at the end of the day truth becomes a matter of what the consumer understands about your brand and the way it makes them feel as an individual.

5 Must Have Characteristics For Ethical Marketing Campaigns

  1. They deliver value
  2. They uplift the consumer
  3. They don’t look for sneaky ways to extract revenue; they give back
  4. They’re designed and simplified for diverse individuals to be able to digest easily
  5. They have methods, processes and mediums to consistently communicate effectively with the consumer

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