Beware Of Fracturing Your Brand Culture

Delta Air Lines is rated the #1 US airline, according to the 29th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) study conducted by Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle. So, it’s a bit surprising that a top brand would gamble with its most valuable asset: the employees that make the brand possible. As reported in The New York Times, and virally shared on social media, Delta is facing backlash for suggesting to employees that it would be more “fun” to spend their money on new video games or rounds of drinks than on union dues.

Delta Airlines Employee Communications

Here’s a few messages from flyers that were displayed in employee break rooms:

  • “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.”
  • “Nothing’s more enjoyable than a night out watching football with your buddies. All those union dues you pay every year could buy a few rounds.”
  • “Tickets & food to a baseball game for a family aren’t cheap. That $700 in union dues you’d be paying every year could sure go a long way.”

While the flyers have been displayed in employee break rooms for over a year, the attention they’ve received drew ire from politicians and industry leaders. James Carlson, an assistant airline coordinator for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union that is campaigning to represent Delta’s ramp service employees and flight attendants, said, “It is disgusting; it is insulting; it is juvenile. Nobody that respects their employees would talk to them that way.”

California Democrat Katie Porter was just as direct on Twitter, “You’re making an extra $800M per YEAR because of the Trump tax bill. But you’re aggressively undermining unions, which fight for fair pay and job security for your employees?” And Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said, “Stop trying to undercut workers’ right to form a union and negotiate for better wages.”

The airlines haven’t had it easy lately. A slew of blunders from forcibly removing paying passengers from planes, to not allowing people to board for violating a dress code, to charging a la carte fees sometimes for carry-on space and seat selection all contribute to negative perception that there is something fundamentally wrong with the brand’s culture.

At the same time, it also seems very tone deaf at a time when there is increased attention on workers’ rights. Uber drivers recently struck to protest low wages and job insecurity and their shares are slumping after their recent IPO.

Hilton Barbour reminds us that “Brand Experience = Customer Experience + Employee Experience.” He shares this great example, “United’s promise of ‘Fly The Friendly Skies’ quickly became fodder for Senate hearings, late night comics and internet memes when their gate crew were anything but friendly. The disconnect between marketing promise and employee fulfillment couldn’t be starker.” The same could be said for Delta in this case: ‘Keep Climbing’ or play video games?

The Implications For Brands

Brands are built from the inside-out by all of the people in the equation. Mark Di Somma illustrates that point here: “Brand culture is the culture that a company cultivates in order to powerfully, consistently and competitively deliver its brand to market. It’s how people work together to bring the brand alive for customers. But brand cultures are more than an expression of the brand itself; they are, by necessity, an expression of the people who work for that brand and the decisions and ways of working and behaving that they agree to work within.” How can a brand reach its full potential by setting a tone of division?

It’s a question Delta’s leadership should be asking themselves.

When customers discover unpleasant things about the way your brand treats or communicates with your employees, you risk fracturing brand equity and employee morale. The same attention to detail and sensitivity that goes into your customer communications needs to be observed in employee communications.

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about our purpose, mission, vision and values and brand culture workshops.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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