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United Introduces a Familiar, Reliable, but Risky Ad Campaign

Throughout history, some of the stickiest advertising jingles and slogans have come from airlines. United apparently likes the nostalgia, because it is pairing its old slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies” and theme music, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, once again. This may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but there is a big risk to this strategy.

If I hear someone refer to Delta’s old slogan, “We Love to Fly and It Shows,” I can still hear the melody in my head. And I’m sure you can sing along with this one… “We’re American Airlines, Something Special in the Air.” United had its jingles, but what I really remember are the slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies” and the music, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Sorry, but you’ll now be whistling it all day.) Those two are getting together once again.

Rhapsody in Blue itself has been in continuous use for years with United, but this is the first time we’ve see anything about the Friendly Skies in quite some time. The ad above has been getting a lot of airplay this week and hearkens back to the old days where just a couple of notes of that composition made you feel like going somewhere. But things are different today, and I think you probably know where this is going. When’s the last time you would associate United with being “friendly”?

To be fair, Tom O’Toole, VP of Marketing and Loyalty told the New York Times that it “sets an aspirational target for the customer experience United delivers.” It’s great to have an aspirational target, but if you can’t deliver on it consistently when you broadcast it to the world, it’s going to make people angry.

I’d like to think that this is very good news, that it means United is finally seeing blue skies ahead. After a couple very difficult years of integrating with Continental, maybe the United team now sees a dramatic improvement and feels comfortable rolling out a campaign to talk about it. If they had tried that a year ago, they would have been laughed out of the room. So maybe things are finally looking up. We can hope.

The campaign this time is actually somewhat different than previous ones. “Friendly” means something different today than it did long ago. For the most part, United isn’t talking about its people being friendly. It’s talking about its amenities being friendly. Watch this ad to see what I mean.

So it’s not the people who are friendly (though they may be) but rather the flat beds, the extra legroom in Economy Plus, etc. That may seem like a subtle difference, and it is a better message (though not necessarily one that translates to those in deep coach). But when you recycle an old slogan, the original meaning often continues to shine through.

And the original meaning is pretty powerful. Heck, the song alone is powerful. Every time I hear Rhapsody in Blue, whether it’s related to a United ad or not, I smile. I remember flying to Hawai’i as a kid on those big DC-10s. I’m not a huge fan of classical music, but I never turn Rhapsody off if I hear it. It’s intricately tied to good childhood memories and to United.

That, of course, makes me wonder whether this can truly be refreshed. I like the message United has created, focusing on the amenities that are differentiators versus competitors. (As you can imagine, I think the second ad here is more effective than the grandiose first one.) Had United just come up with this on its own and the airline was generally running well, then I would be all for it.

But the history of the campaign brings some old memories out of the closet and that creates a very big legacy to live up to. Even if United is improving every day (and we all hope that’s the case), can the airline ever live up to what the slogan and song mean to people who grew up with it? I’m afraid United might just be shooting itself in the foot with this campaign, though I hope I’m wrong. At least I can enjoy listening to the music.

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