by Paige Burton-Argo on January 25, 2013

Every organization — from businesses to nonprofits to communities — has a story that is being told about it. To a degree, you can be in control of your story — that’s why companies like ours exist. But sometimes, a company will try to take control of its story, and end up making a complete mess of it. That’s what is currently happening with American Airlines and their rebranding efforts.

American knows that there is a story that is widely circulated about their company, and they don’t like it — and rightly so! The story is this: “American Airlines has the worst customer service of any airline operating presently.” (Not only word-of-mouth — according to Brand Key’s 2013 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, American was ranked last in the airline category, and it is usually ranked in the bottom of the annual Airline Quality Ratings.)

Here are the kinds of things that New Boston would have suggested to counter this story:

  • Improve customer service and share this commitment with current and future passengers.
  • Find customers who’ve had good experiences and make them advocates for your company.
  • Reward employees who improve your company image and tell their stories on social media.

Instead, American decided to ignore the real problem, and try to cover it up with millions of dollars worth of pretty packaging. That would almost be a strategy (although, not a very good one) if it weren’t for the fact that most people who look at their new branding materials are just plain confused.

If you get past the logo — which attempts to be abstract but ends up looking like it’s missing its other half — you are then left to furrow your brow at the 60-second TV commercial, which is a full minute of seemingly ordinary people across the globe looking up in awe at the sky, or rather, an American Airline jet.

As Kristin pointed out to me, this was a missed Purple Cow opportunity. You could swap out American for any other airline and nobody would even notice, because American chose to base their advertising around something that every one of their competitors does (fly planes) rather than set themselves apart with something unique to their company.

To add insult to injury, American released a statement saying they wanted to “bring back the wonder of travel…that amazement, that wow factor.” But American forgot one little detail: there is no longer anything wondrous, or amazing, or wowing about air travel! People have moved on, the magic is gone. We don’t expect people to still be excited about ovens that get hot, or lamps that produce light, or toilets that flush AND are indoors. Humans are awesome, we make cool things happen, and then we get over it and move on to the next thing.

American tried to distract people by telling them what they thought was a good story: “Traveling in the air is a life-changing experience, and you can have that experience by flying American.”

Why was this doomed to fail? Because it’s just not true.

I have a feeling that this will continue to be their story: “American Airlines has the worst customer service of any airline…AND they spent a bunch of money on making a stupid commercial instead of dealing with the real issue.”

A little harsh? Maybe. But the point is that someone should have gotten a little harsh with American. Someone should have asked the difficult questions, gotten to the bottom of the problem, and worked on a way to fix it, rather than cover it up. And then, when they started to create and distribute a new message, they should have gotten real rather than make a fluff piece that has no truth to it.

At New Boston, one of the words we use a lot is “authentic.” We strive for authenticity in everything we do. When we work with a client to create a message, we ask questions that help us to discover what they are really about — what makes them tick, why they do what they do, and what they aspire to. We know that behind every business, every nonprofit, and every community, there is a nugget of distinct truth, something that is sincere and undeniable that makes that organization worth knowing about — their Purple Cow . We work with our clients to discover what that something is, and then do our best to polish it up and make it stand out for people to see.

(And there are times when we have some unpleasant things to tell clients — about their image, their reputation, their business practices. We give constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, always keeping their best interests in mind.)

No hiding, no masks, no bag of tricks. No generic messages with your logo slapped on them. We want you to be your best, and we want to help you show people why you deserve the spotlight. So…if you’re interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty details of your organization in order to shape a story that will make a difference, we’d love to help!