United Polaris and the Rise of the Branded Experience


By now you’re probably aware that United has launched an all-new Business Class which it is calling Polaris. This follows in the footsteps of Delta One in that it’s an effort to brand the entire premium cabin experience differently from a) traditional premium cabin branding (eg Business Class) and b) coach. The nuts and bolts of this new offering all seem to come together nicely, but it’s the idea behind the branding that’s really grabbing me.

Though airlines have tried to leapfrog each other over the last few years when it comes to the premium cabin, this move by United doesn’t do that. This is mostly playing catch-up.

The new seat isn’t revolutionary from a customer-perspective. It looks like a good flat bed seat and will be competitive with any Business Class seat you’ll find. From an airline perspective, however, this design is going to allow for higher density and that’s a good thing… as long as it’s comfortable.

The seat will first join the fleet on the 777-300ER when its delivered late this year. All 787-10 and A350-1000 aircraft will have it installed off the bat. When it comes to retrofitting existing aircraft, presumably the 777s and 767s that have the pre-merger United subpar flat beds will be retrofitted first. (Those are the 777s with the 2-4-2 configuration.) Eventually the rest of the 777s (excluding the domestic aircraft which will keep the old 2-4-2 seats) and 767s will be retrofitted, as will the 787-8/9s. I haven’t heard about the 757s, and the 747s will not be retrofitted. Those will be retired in the next couple years.

United Polaris Seat

What’s notable about this is that United will have the same seat on every widebody in its fleet. You can’t say that about Delta or American with their different seating options. Further, once the 747s are gone and the 777s are reconfigured, United will get rid of international First Class entirely. That means the United long haul premium cabin experience will all be based off the same seat fleetwide. I’m a big fan of a consistent experience like this, and it does make it easier to brand.

The brand itself is being built around the idea of sleep. According to United, it “conducted more than 12,000 hours of research, and sleep emerged as the single most important priority for international business class travelers.” To that I say… how the hell did you need 12,000 hours of research to figure that out!? But ok, so it’s all about sleep. In that sense, the branding works well. When I think of Polaris, I think of a clear, quiet night sky. The logo reflects that too.

2016_06_07 united polaris

United is looking at this as more than just a seat, of course. It’s digging deep and trying to make a coherent experience from start to finish. It partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for bedding, which seems old and stodgy to me but I’ve been told that’s not an accurate view of the brand these days. There are also duvets, mattress pads, slippers, gel-cooled pillows and on flights over 12 hours, pajamas. The detail goes down pretty far here with even a “calming lavender pillow mist” going into the amenity kits. The onboard experience feels as if it’s been thought through.

Of course this can’t be entirely about sleeping, and it’s not. There is an upgrade to the food and beverage service as well, both in the air and on the ground. On longer flights, there are even going to be hot mid-flight snacks available. That to me actually does bring it right back to the sleep theme. People can sleep when they want and still be able to eat something substantial on their own schedule.

The ground experience is the one place where United is notably trying to better differentiate itself from American and Delta. It is replacing its Global First lounges with Polaris lounges in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Its renovations in LA will also result in the opening of a Polaris Lounge. And in Newark and Houston, it will build new Polaris lounges from scratch.

These lounges look pretty swanky with day beds (sleeeeeeep), hot food, showers, and no way to buy-in as can be done with the United Clubs. Is that necessary? Eh. Doesn’t do it for me, but leading carriers around the world have seen value in a lounge especially for premium cabin customers. I don’t know that it’ll influence purchase decision, but it should make people happier when they board the airplane.

What United is doing is creating a consistent experience for premium cabin travelers, and that is no small feat. Of course, it has to follow through with this and make sure it doesn’t dilute the offering by whacking amenities at the next downturn (which, if United lives up to its past, is inevitable), but it has built itself a nice solid offering. The question is… does that offering (or the offering of any airline) need to be branded or can it just be billed as a Business Class? (Or maybe Connoisseur Class, anyone?)

Airlines have become enamored with hotels over the years. They’re really in love with the idea of separate brands for distinct offerings. Historically in the US, all those ideas went into branding standalone low cost carriers. Think Ted and Song. But what the airlines have finally come around to realize is that the best kind of differentiation happens in the same tube. American President Scott Kirby referred to this at a recent conference saying that coach is like the Holiday Inn. And that means, the premium cabin is like Intercontinental. Or in Starwood terms….

Hotel Branding for Airlines

If you’re a Starwood loyalist, you know what Westin stands for, and you know it’s totally different than what Four Points stands for. (If you know what Sheraton stands for, please let me know since that brand is all over the map.) United, like Delta to a lesser extent, is trying to apply that multi-brand strategy to the airline industry but finally without trying to operate a separate airline. Finally. And its first real brand is Polaris.

Were it not for the goofy way airlines sell tickets through third parties, this might be an easier thing to accomplish. After all, hotels aren’t in rigid classes. People just know that a Hampton Inn and a Four Points are pretty similar, as are a Hilton and a Marriott. These are brands that have been built up over time, and people know what they stand for. But United? It’s all things to all people. So just as Starwood has Westin, Sheraton, and Four Points, why can’t United have Polaris, Sirius, and Vega? Maybe the next brand should be for its soon-to-be-released basic economy product. I think I have the perfect name.

2016_06_07 united uranus

In all seriousness, however, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. When I think about a hotel brand, that helps set my expectations. When I think about United or Delta, I think of a lot of different things. Maybe United Polaris is the first step (along with Delta One, which could be followed by Delta Two and Delta Three… or not) toward a smarter effort to brand classes as the truly differentiated products they are becoming.

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39 comments on “United Polaris and the Rise of the Branded Experience

  1. You just kind of gloss over the very existence of United’s 2-4-2 777s. Only United would have ever sold a 2-4-2 Business Class.

    1. No, British Airways has 2-4-2 in Club World on the 777. And BA’s 2-4-2 came out in the early 2000s.

  2. I think the branding all started with JetBlue’s Mint. Can’t think of any other specific brands that predate that. Maybe British Airways? I think they’ve always called their business/first cabins something fancy. Personally, pretty excited about the idea of the exclusive lounge. No other airline has that yet, which is a unique differentiator and I guess we’ll see if it’s successful. Personally, just glad I’ll no longer have to look for s/CO planes to fly.

  3. Virgin’s Upper Class was the first time I remember the different branding of business class and, at when introduced it was a different experience. Not sure if this move by UA, at least on their long haul international routes will drive more traffic to them.

  4. Branded Experience – that has become a marketing buzzword for almost everything today. When you go to most themed restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory or P. F. Changs , you’re not just dining out – it’s an “experience.” United just figured out how to translate that in such a way that is not all that different to hotels as cranky noted.

    Here’s another way to look at the branded experience on the retail side. If you are in Cranky’s neck of the woods & you want to go visit a shopping mall, you can go to Lakewood Center or travel a few miles & see South Coast Plaza & or Fashon Island The latter two are as much a branded experience as you’ll find in Southern California.

  5. They can make the seating/cabin as fancy as they want, but it’s still United or Delta or America so no big deal. U.S. flyers will still know these carriers from their domestic travels and know how bad it can be flying around the USA.

    As far as naming things, everyone still says First and Business. Who really tells someone to book them in Zebra class on one airline and Carnation class on another. They just say business class.

  6. TW had Ambassador & Royal Ambassador for business & first. US had Envoy. I’m sure there were/are others.

  7. I’m still not sure how any airline can use the same seat and have direct aisle access on every widebody aircraft from the 767 on up and not either waste a lot of space on wider aircraft or offer a narrower version of the same seat on the 767. Nor I am sure that it is really worth it for United or any airline to try to push beyond the current lie-flat products that are available on the 767 given that those aircraft are getting older, minimizing the ROI, and because they don’t fly flights that are near as long. On most 767 flights, in order to have the seat flat for more than about 5 hours, you have to skip one or more of the meal services. There was a big leap between the current lie-flat, direct aisle products that are available even on 767s and traditional business and even first class of 10-15 years ago. anyone?

    The rest of the initiative makes sense esp. the on-the-ground experience and could differentiate United especially to Asia as competition there continues to develop

  8. SQ Raffles Class. CP Empress Class. AZ Magnifica. BR Royal Laurel. TG Royal Silk. The list goes on. Branded cabins are nothing new, nor are brand partnerships for in-flight amenities and services.

    It’s a bit of a fashion come and go: One decade every airline needs to have its own clever name for a cabin. The next decade they want to standardize for better customer comprehension and distribution simplicity. AC only just changed ExecutiveFirst into Business.

    Fads come and go.

  9. Normally I don’t pay much attention to branding. But in the case of US-based airlines, I think they need it. The problem with US-based carriers is two fold 1) They’ve lagged their foreign competition for years, and 2) They take FOR-E-VER to update their products. US-based airlines tend to remind me of the that line from Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

    I know enough to know that I have to check and see what product is flown on which route when I book. It drives me nuts. Any brand with “Business” in it does not stick, and therefore doesn’t work. BusinessElite? BusinessFirst? World Business Class? I can’t even tell you which carriers operate which “product.”

    Compare all of that to Cathay Pacific. You know what I love about that airline? No matter what US gateway I use, I get the same product to HKG. In HKG, the lounges are fantastic. No worrying about which product, which aircraft, whether or not aircraft substitutions (and consequently, hard product) are common. It’s solid. It’s reliable. It’s consistent.

    If the US carriers are truly revamping the entire product, from the ground to the service to the seat, they need a way to communicate that to the public. “Polaris” sticks out. “New Business Class” does not.

  10. Just flew a PMCO UA 764 in BizFirst to BCN last week and a PMUA 763 in Biz to ORD a few weeks before. Both products are tired and this is so needed. The focus on sleep is so key as I often skip meal service or get express dining so I can get some zzzz.
    I think the name mostly sucks, but do like the attempt to brand it as an experience.

    On the lounge, restricting it to only Polaris flyers is KEY. With affinity credit cards and elite status the EWR UA clubs are more hectic than the main terminal (which C has been significantly upgraded with food recently). Think they can provide a much nicer experience and tie cost of lounge to ticket vs. throwing in the guy going to MCO for $250 who has status or a credit card.

  11. Considering I usually call the classes F, J, W, and Y; I don’t see the point of giving them fancy names like Polaris, or DeltaOne, or whatever you want to call it.

    I think it’s a needed move on the part of UA to align with AA and DL since DL already has aisle access in all it’s international widebodies and AA is along in that process as well. I wonder if this Polaris product will ever make it into the 767s?

    As for the lounge, I just like a quiet place with comfy seats, free non-alcoholic drinks, and some snacks to pass the time. The United Club suites that purpose. If I really wanted a good meal, I would find it in the airport. I was in ATL a couple years ago flying J to EZE and I was hungry, so instead of eating lounge food, I went out to One Flew South and had a good meal, that was better than the J meal on the plane.

  12. Time will tell if it’s a better offering. I fly mostly business to sleep already and skip meals on overnight TA flights. I agree that most UA clubs are zoos and would welcome a business-only club as i like to work before I fly, snack, and do email quietly. You can’t do that in any of the current regular UA clubs. There are times when I’d rather find a quieter place in the airport than go to a club because the crowding and noise are so bad.

  13. I’m sort of curious they haven’t tackled the branding at distribution problem a bit more. I’m not sure with IATA rules are but it’d be interesting if they could get another code so they could separately brand Polaris through all the distribution channels.

    And if IATA won’t let them have their own code, I’d hack it and start an “airline” that has a weekly flight on a B1900 between IAD and DCA that only sells tickets at $40,000 per seat. (The goal here is to NOT sell tickets.) Then that airline could codeshare with United on the flights where the Polaris product is available.

    1. Nick – This reminds me of the old AX code. I don’t remember exact details but American couldn’t have the amount of regional flying it needed thanks to the pilot contract. So instead, it codeshared with Trans States and that meant there was a lot of AX code on AA flights. No reason United couldn’t try to do some trickeration like that if it wanted. But it shouldn’t have to go that far. These codes are all just relics of days gone by. Systems should be able to work around them to create the consumer experience that should be given. They just don’t do it.

      1. Agreed that they shouldn’t have to resort to such trickery, but GDSes have been promising innovation for a long long time, but haven’t really delivered much.

        I expect that GDSes will support the newer features that airlines request as soon as the US comeback of turboprops occurs: in 5 to 10 years. But in 5 to 10 years it’ll still be 5 to 10 years off.

  14. Pan Am had Clipper Class, and if you go back with a little research I’m sure there are other’s who named their business offerings.

    Maybe the likes of Ansett, Varig?.

    British Airways came out with Club Class in the mid 80s, after or around the time of Virgin Atlantic launching…which did not offer a First Class, but to compete dead on offering the same type of slumber seat in its business class called “Upper Class”.

    Branson wanted to call Economy Class “Riff Raff Class” …in step with the 80s and within the common class of England it was seen as fun, but not coming from the Upper Class of society….hahaha

  15. You missed a key feature of the new Polaris branding at United. They will also be including gate to gate transfers on the Tarmac using Polaris ATV’s. It will be extra fun in the snow or rain :)

  16. This is not branding, it’s sub-branding.

    And it never works, especially in a market where there are zillion of providers. Nobody — ever — will ask to fly Royal orchid, Club world, Raffles, or Polaris. It actually backfires, as consumers have no clue what any of these mean (Thai business class, British Airways business class, Singapore business class and United business class all have.far higher brand value than the silly names above).

    Have you ever heard anyone say that Raffles is the best business class? Not me. Everyone just says Singapore.

  17. I hope UA will also have Polaris in TSA check points. It is a zoo in Newark on Monday morning. Everyone with a credit card has premier access.

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