Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

Frequent flyer programs: No longer going the distance.

What took so long?

frequent flyer programsDelta and United Airlines have announced what they hope will be an industry-pacesetting change in the way frequent flyer programs are administered by the world’s biggest airlines.

The two air passenger carriers are shifting away from awarding points based on flight distance, and instead will award points based on the actual airfare paid by the traveler.

The change in procedures will become effective in 2015 (in January for Delta and in March for United).

In retrospect, one wonders why it took so long for the big airlines to make this move.

After all, the very nature of loyalty programs is to reward a company’s best and most profitable customers.

Business travelers who book a flight a few days ahead – not to mention people who prefer to travel first class – are far more valuable to an airline than someone who books the “Cheapy Charlie” web-only fare months in advance.

Besides, prominent low-cost air carriers like JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin have been using revenue-based methods of calculating their frequent-flier points for a good while now.

As for which types of travelers will come out winners vs. losers in the frequent flyer program changes, it’s exactly who you’d expect:

  • Big Winners:  Business passengers traveling internationally and on refundable-fare domestic flights + first-class passengers.
  • Big Losers:  Leisure fliers in coach class + business flyers who travel on cheap fares.
  • In-Betweeners:  Business passengers who travel using a mix of business and economy fares.

The recent announcements by Delta and United leave only American Airlines as the last big U.S.-based global carrier that still maintains the traditional distance-based calculation for earning miles.

I wonder how much longer they’ll hold out?

Only a matter of months, I’m guessing.

What are your opinions about the changing policies?  Are there particular frequent flyer programs you love?  … Or love to hate?  Feel free to share your thoughts with other readers.

The companies everyone love to hate.

Bad company ratingsIt seems that there are certain companies people like to criticize all the time. One that I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling about in recent months is Comcast.

Now comes along a report from 24/7 Wall St, an equity investment data aggregator and investment firm, which has compiled a list of the “Ten Most Hated” companies in America.

Its list is based on reviewing a variety of qualitative and quantitative attributes. Companies were examined based on total return to shareholders in comparison to the broader market plus competitors in the same sectors.

Financial analyst opinions on publicly held companies were also reviewed, as well as findings from consumer surveys conducted by diverse sources (the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power & Associates, ForeSee, etc.)

Also evaluated was the Flame Index, which uses an algorithm to review ~12,000 websites to rank companies based on the frequency of negative words and terms associated with them.

Lastly, an analysis of media coverage to determine the extent of negative and positive news coverage was conducted.

Stripping away such quasi-governmental agencies as the U.S. Post Office, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, it leaves us with an interesting list of the “worst of the worst.”

Some of the companies that made the 24/7 Wall St list – and the reasons for them achieving the dubious honor – include:

American Airlines – Not only has this airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it’s rated the worst airline for customer service. It’s performing at or near the bottom of the heap on attributes like on-time departures, flight cancellations, and baggage handling problems. American Airlines’ University of Michigan ACS index of 63 is dramatically lower than Southwest – the industry’s leader which scored an 81 on the index.

Facebook – This behemoth may claim a user base of 800 million+, but that doesn’t stop people from having major grievances with the company. A recent customer satisfaction survey conducted by IBOPE Zogby found that ~30% of users consider Facebook’s customer service to be “poor.” (Anyone who has ever actually tried to interface with the company might be tempted to ask, “What customer service?” Facebook has also received negative press coverage for sneakily instituting, with no warning, privacy settings that change how it shares personal information with others.

Best Buy – This company is still smarting over self-inflicted problems during the holiday season when it ran out of popular merchandise it sold online … then neglected to inform buyers of the fact until just two days before Christmas. The retailer’s explanations (excuses?) seemed lame. It’s one reason ForeSee dropped Best Buy from being the second-ranked company for retail satisfaction prior to the holiday season (just behind Amazon). Now Best Buy is ranked so poorly, it no longer appears among the Top 20 national retailers. To make matters worse, Forbes magazine predicts that Best Buy is a prime candidate for simply disappearing … the only question is whether it will happen before or after Sears/Kmart bites the dust.

Netflix – Here’s a company that’s gone from the “highest of the high” to the “lowest of the low” in one fell swoop. Instituting dramatically higher pricing in August 2011 resulted in the rapid loss of more than 800,000 Netflix subscribers … accompanied by the company’s stock price plummeting 30% from over $300 per share to $215 in under six months (and more than 60% for the full year).

Johnson & Johnson – When an iconic brand like J&J can manage to have a slew of two dozen product recalls over a two-year period – including with Motrin and Children’s Tylenol – it’s bound to have a dramatic impact on company performance and reputation. The FDA took over three Tylenol plants in March 2011, and OTC drug sales are off double digits compared to the previous year. While J&J’s stock price hasn’t tanked in the event, it has remained flat – which is horrendous performance compared to the rest of the pharma industry.

For the record, the five other companies named to 24/7 Wall St.’s “Ten Worst” list were:

 AT&T
 Bank of America
 Goldman Sachs
 Nokia
 Sears

… And I’m sure all of us can think of reasons why these also gained entry onto the “rogue’s gallery” of corporations.

Frequent Fliers’ Lament: U.S. Airlines are Second String

It isn’t just with automobiles that the U.S. public sees American companies as worse than their overseas counterparts. Our airline industry also comes in for its share of lumps.

Anyone who has ever heard horrific air travel stories from colleagues, friends or relatives – and that’s most of us – wouldn’t be surprised if consumer ratings of U.S. airlines pale in comparison to others. And now we have the record to prove it. SeatGuru, TripAdvisor’s online site that bills itself as “the ultimate source for airplane seating, in-flight amenities and airline information,” has just released the results from its most recent annual survey of frequent fliers (defined as people who have flown at least eight times in the past year).

And what does this year’s survey tell us? For starters, U.S. air carriers have the least comfortable seats of all airlines.

Also, they serve the worst food – if they serve it at all.

Rude flight attendants? Bottoms again.

Who ranks best? If you’re looking for good food, the survey respondents tell us we can’t go wrong with Singapore Airlines, British Airways or Air France. Perhaps surprisingly, Continental Airlines also ranked well. But avoid American, United and U.S. Airways – rated the worst of the bunch.

These same three U.S. carriers also scored at the bottom of the heap for the comfort of their economy-class seating. JetBlue does score well in this category; too bad most of us never get the chance to fly this airline because they serve precious few cities. (For the best business class seating, respondents gave highest marks to British Airways.)

And guess what? The very same three carriers – American, United and U.S. Airways – topped the list for having the nastiest flight attendants. If polite, friendly service is your thing, you’re far more likely to find that over at Singapore Airlines or Southwest.

What about the all-important performance metric of on-time flight arrivals? For that, we can look to actual data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics rather than rely on survey findings. What we see is that for the first three months of 2009, Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance of any U.S. airline company, with more than 90% of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule.

But they’re a small airline company. What about the biggest carriers? Southwest has performed the best, while Continental is at the opposite end of the scale.

And what flight to take if you want the dubious distinction of traveling the worst airline route of all? That would be Northwest Airlines Flight #5803 from Atlanta to Honolulu. It was late a mere 96% of the time. Well, there’s consistency for you at least!

As for getting yourself to your destination in one piece … may your pilot be Chesley B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.

Happy Travels!