United Introduces a Familiar, Reliable, but Risky Ad Campaign

Advertising, United

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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36 comments on “United Introduces a Familiar, Reliable, but Risky Ad Campaign

  1. When I hear the Rhapsody in Blue playing, I want the commercial to end with the tulip logo! It’s strange that when I see the new UA livery it does to connect for a moment.

  2. I want the tulip back too :( The old United was such a pleasure to fly…kudos for them at least trying to bring the slogan back. Now let’s see if they can deliver.

  3. I dunno. I’m not sure it’s that easier to change the meaning of – and institutional memory of – the word friendly.

    When I’m Burger King and I bring back Have it your way, you get it – I make it super easy to customize your food. BMW tried redefining Ultimate Driving Machine as Joy for a few years, and went right back to the original intent.

    The first time I fly United after seeing all of those ads, and I meet a surly flight attendant or gate agent, the strategy is blown – and you’re not getting me back.

    Will be interesting to see how it goes.

  4. I’ll paraphrase something you said a couple of years ago. My problem with these ads is that the use of “Rhapsody in Blue”, and the first ad featuring the orchestra and champagne in particular, give the impression that flying UA is a premium experience, both in terms of on-board product and that the airline will take care of you. That may be true if you are in a premium cabin or are a high-level elite, but I think it creates something of a false impression for the average traveler without status or that can’t/won’t purchase seating in E+. After all, when you’re stuck in your middle seat in the back of Economy Minus, after SHARES has booted you from the window you reserved weeks before, and encounter a surly gate agent that tells you nothing can be done AND oh by the way, you’ll have to gate check that carry-on, you end up feeling just a bit cheated.

    And yes, this was meant to be excessively hyperbolic, but I think illustrates the danger of advertising a premium experience when you’re unable to consistently deliver.

    1. MeanMeosh – The question is who is the advertising targeted to?

      Your average leisure traveler buys almost exclusively on price.
      Your average business traveler buys on a combination of schedule, FF miles, and price.

      This is likely targeted to getting people who pay for the pointy end of the plane back on the plane. I wouldn’t be surprised if there has been an exodus to Delta and foreign carriers from United.

  5. Recently took a trip from EWR to SJD on United through IAH. All 4 of my flights were early and the crews were nice. The flights were full.

    I think that people need to have the proper expectation. When you purchase a $100 fare to fly from EWR to ORD then you should expect $100 not $10K.
    Is every UA employee happy? I can’t say that, but it has gotten much better in the past 8-10 months.
    Do they still have work to do? Absolutely, but at some point you have to move forward with a new image. So many folks were killing UA for the CO-style marketing. From everything I have read, UA actually delayed the introduction of this new campaign until they got more proof things are truly improving. So they did not rush into this decision.

  6. Between Homeland Security, TSA, the airlines themself, and crabby airline workers that give all airline workers a bad name, there is nothing friendly about flying.

    I’ve always found the Rhapsody ads annoying, so it being back does not pull at my heart strings. And I always find it funny that airline ads never show the cattle section of the aircraft and how unsmiling those passengers are.

  7. MeanMeosh brings up a great point….but it is not unique to UA. Delta’s national ad buys are focused on elite status and premium-centric perks. AA seems to have chosen a middle of the road approach; pushing the re-brand, fleet renewal and commitment to new technologies & quality regardless of class. Interesting to note that OW partner, BA has gone the same way.

    In the final analysis, I think that UA & DL have resigned themselves to the fact that the non elite, price sensitive traveler will go with what Expedia lists as the cheapest. Or they immediately think *DING* and go to Southwest.com, thanks to their brilliant ads that associate their brand with value (even though industry wonks know that often that is not the case). Indeed, these new ads target the coveted elite road-warrior demographic. The days of chasing infrequent flyers visiting grandma or seeing Mickey are long gone since the ROI isnt there.

    Here’s a blast from the past :D


  8. Brett, I’m the same way. I too remember the jingle growing up as a kid, and like you, flying to HNL on the old UA Flt 1 ORD-HNL 747-200s as mom non-revv’d us on holiday over there. It’s like a bit of nostalgia coming back, I guess.

  9. I really wonder if the vast majority of the flying population is as critical as airline geeks. I also wonder if most people even remember commercial jingles.

    In my experience, airlines are pretty much airlines. But, as a musician I do listen to and remember the jingles.

    I really wonder if the flying public as a whole will tie “Rhapsody in Blue” to the “good old days” (which, in my opinion, weren’t really THAT good) of United Airlines.

  10. I love the commercial (and Rhapsody) too, but I’m sure everyone also remembers the poor guitarist’s horror story that played out in the YouTube video ‘United Breaks Guitars.’ (I can still hum THAT tune, too). And as my husband, a professional musician, noted: After this commercial, United had better not ever tell a musician that there’s no room for a violin on board!

    1. Fran Morley: “””””After this commercial, United had better not ever tell a musician that there?s no room for a violin on board!”””””

      That comment is great, I laughed out loud.

  11. The ad campaign is not for you.. This is a wishy washy indulgent article. Pointless speculation. Recently, I had a great friendly experience.. True, i was in a First class seat on a trans atlantic flight, the only customer in First.. It’s all so highly subjective…On the other hand, I had a dreary experience in First on a domestic flight in a tired 757 DCA-DEN-SFO with a haggard and overworked crew and a lengthy ground delay for a door latch issue in Denver. …The ads are to get the public to buy the tickets by associating the brand with brilliant music.

  12. Well, I hope UA is not planning on bringing back more golden oldies, such as “Allegis,” the short lived name for holding company UAL Inc. from the late 1980s. This name was universally despised and Donald Trump was quoted saying Allegis is the next world class disease.

    Can you imagine seeing ads singing “Fly the Friendly Skies of Allegis?”

    Meanwhile, here is travel writer Joe Brancatelli ‘s take on this: “[UA] has the unmitigated gall to revive the “fly the friendly skies” tag that was so popular in United ads from decades ago. Now we all know that United’s customer service sucks, partially because the carrier’s employees are treated poorly by management and partially because United’s management team has claimed that the airline’s best customers are “overentitled.” Yet United’s clueless and tedious bosses really think we’ll be swayed by an advertising catchphrase that was barely true decades ago and certainly is a bald-faced lie now.”

    “But what may be scariest of all: The fools running United actually think they are doing a good job. When you talk to them–as I must do from time to time–they are convinced they’re running a great airline and we customers are just too stupid to realize it. Life on the road is a bitter mystery in the best of times, but United and its tone-deaf revival of a hoary old catchphrase is the perfect example of why we hate airlines.”

    I add, United needs to improve the general public’s perception of its service before bringing back a slogan like “friendly skies.”

  13. The picture of the customer being handed a pillow hits a nerve. On our last trip on United, an overnight flight Maui-Denver, UA FAs let my wife know in the rudest possible fashion that they would not be giving her pillow. And we were flying in first.

    Let’s just say actions speak louder than words.

  14. This Ad Campaign is also important for the employees of United. They seem to relate to it and feel proud of and for their company again. Perhaps Continental people are running things now, but United was the class act when it was around and they are hopefully going to resurrect that spirit. The commercials are awesome and far better than what Continental had…and no, I do not work for United or any airline…LOL

  15. “Friendly Skies” versus reality..
    May.. flew UA non stop BOM-EWR in BuinessFirst. Food inedible, crew indifferent..never have I gotten off a transocean business class flight hungry!

    BusinessFirst seats…no aisle access for windows and very small space for feet when in flat bed mode…Friendly? Certainly more so than Y.

    July..flew UA F nonstop EWR-SEA(in CO days this was a high quality premium service) meal poor/bad old coach level and F/A detached and indifferent

    UA Old fleet of airbus 320/319’s..no direct TV..an unfriendly downgrade on many domestic routes.

    EWR Premier Access/First Class check-in-Counter: agents AVOID eye contact let alone interaction with Premier A Guests. How about..”Welcome to United, need any help with your check-in…have a good flight?”

    I love the new commercials, but they certainly don’t acurrately reflect the current new “Friendly” UA airline experience I have had last few flights in premium class.

    I like my domestic upgrades, red priority bag tag and economy plus(“Friendly”, yes) for the leg room(although in my day 34 inches, not 31 was standard)..won’t buy F or waste miles on domestic long haul upgrades after the SEA flight and I maintain low expectations when flying UA and no expectations when flying any other airline without my Premier Status..so I rarely am disappointed and on occassion can be pleasantly surprised…based on the flight’s cabin crew and their interaction with guests.

    In spite of it all, I know UA management is trying and most individuals I interact with at UA make an effort. You don’t merge two big airlines into a giant airline and come out with a “TV AD” experience….I believe in giving constructive feedback, both good and bad in the hopes it might help improve things…I find, I get best results from UA staff when I travel by always trying to be “Friendly” regardless of the reality of the service experience!

  16. The second ad is misleading “more room in premium economy” leads to the image of a flat bed in business class without saying that’s business class. The uninformed would assume that United offers flat bed seats in premium economy.

  17. Second ad rather deceptive. If you blink you miss the transition from E+ to bizclass. I can see infrequent flyers thinking they’ll get a flat bed if they book E+. OTOH, the Rhapsody music is one of the greatest ever and UA was smart to tag ad campaigns to it years ago. There are millions of viewers who don’t remember the old ads. The music will be “new” to them.

  18. I don’t see anything in these ads that sets UA apart from DL or AA in terms of product. Although I never fly them, I like how JetBlue advertises a great USP for all pax: more room even in a middle seat. Or Southwest: no baggage fee’s. Those really are differentiators.

  19. I just just flew United SEA-ORD-DAY and DAY-DEN-SEA. The flights were just fine. The employees I interacted with seemed just fine. They weren’t spectacularly wonderful, but they weren’t surly. They did their jobs very nicely. Economy Minus was just fine, although I was the *sshole on a red-eye who had a window seat who had to pee as soon as the seatbelt sign went off. (Hey, I went to the bathroom just before I got on the plane too!)

    Where I thought United fell down hard was their IT operations.

    Before I got onto my SEA-ORD flight I checked on their website if it’d have Wifi. The site said yes. The plane said no to wifi (As far as I could tell it wasn’t equipped.)

    On the iPhone app I was able to have the boarding pass on Passbook on the home screen and in the passbook app, but not within notification center.

    The comedy of subscribing to flight notifications within the iPhone app for the flight I was on, then getting the notification that my flight had landed once I turned my phone off of airplane mode after I knew the flight had landed was a bit odd. (In UA’s defense this might be a desired behavior..)

    At DAY the gate was listed as B17 on the printed boarding passes, and on the iPhone app. We departed out of B19. The iPhone app didn’t update the gate until I was firmly ensconced in my seat.

    Again at DAY we had a game of musical chairs to get the weight and balance right. Everyone got seated, then two people were called to get off the plane. Two different people came on the plane, then two more volunteers were asked to get off the plane. It took quite a bit of time to close the door.

    At DEN my Passbook boarding pass didn’t know what gate my departing flight was at and when reloading the Passbook page it didn’t update the gate. I noted the app boarding pass knew the gate, so I deleted the Passbook boarding pass and had the app push a new boarding pass to Passbook. My Passbook boarding pass briefly had the right gate, then United pushed no gate assigned to the Passbook boarding pass. A few hours later United then pushed the correct gate to the Passbook boarding pass.

    Any one of these alone would’ve just been an odd quirk. All of these together lead me to believe that UA needs to be putting a good investment into their technology to get things properly figured out. This was sad and looked poorly on United.

    In other news it was fun having Dinner with my sister at the French restaurant at DEN..

  20. Great, UA! Love it.

    I complain to UA (sometimes to DOT and OAG as well) all the time. Simple things, like not or so poorly communicating flight delays, untimely delays in getting checked bags to customers at destination, and pilots not turning on Channel 9 on UA-metal flights–and systemic things, like deceptive marketing 1-stop flights, no notice of plane change given, yet in more than 50 of the times as I documented, a plane change was required, and in other cases involving change-of-gauge (notice of plane change provided), marketing such flights as “direct flights,” some, as Dulles to Philly, plane change in San Francisco, and in what UA seemingly conveniently omits in showing times for many connecting flights.

    To UA’s credit, in my most recent travels and my review of flight schedules, it appears that they have improved or are trying to improve, before, during and after the flight. Not everything, not perfectly. At least they have heard my complaints and acknowledged my concerns.

    All I ask is that they show a trend of improving and so far, so good.

  21. The song never went away. It soldiers on in the tunnel at ORD. I’m not a classical music snob. However, I have friends that are much better informed about than I am. They hate the ads because the song is butchered up and remixed bad version of Rhapsody in Blue. Airline ads are meant for high yield passengers not us lowly non frequent or silver elite peons.

  22. Did anyone even listen to the VO in the first commercial? “Every thought, every movement: carefully planned, coordinated and synchronized”. What better display of a management team divorced from reality that would approve those lines in light of their ongoing operational performance. It’s the kind of advertising that just leaves room for cynicism.
    For Smisek and Co., I suggest KV 42 “Jesu Wahrer Gottes Sohn”, Mozart’s Grabmusik (Funeral Music), on endless loop in the executive conference room.

  23. In the second ad, I found it remarkable that the featured airplane is a 767-300 with winglets vice the 747 (largest) or 787 (newest) or 737 (most prolific). Interesting commitment to an older aircraft highlighting the new interiors.

  24. When I first saw the ad, I was wondering what were they thinking. This ad brings back an image of my first flight (BDL – IAD) where we were served a cheese plate and mini sandwiches for a 50 minute flight in Y. You don’t want to have customers thinking that you are a luxury carrier and then find out that you don’t even serve a morsel of free food in Y for a long flight like EWR – HNL anymore.

    Those days of regular old coach being relatively humane are long gone.

  25. Currently in the middle of a UA LHR-IAD-LHR-LAX-YVR-YVJ-YVR-ORD-LHR itinerary (first three legs all within 36 hours), and the service has been brilliant – all in Y. As far as friendly skies, there was one particular cabin crew member who’s worked at least 5 of my flights this year, and I felt the need to point this out to her, and let her know what a great job she’s done. Made her day (I’m told, by her colleagues) – and she then promptly worked my next day return to LHR, before I got back on the same plane, 2hrs later, to LAX.

    Flawed, they may be as an airline, but I have very little to complain about with regard to on-board service.

  26. Isn’t it kind of a delayed answer (or at least some counter-allusion) to “United Breaks Guitars”, especially when some musician is getting a violin from the overhead bin in mint condition? :-)

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