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United's response appears shortsighted to video of man removed from plane, brand expert says

Monday, April 10, 2017

LAWRENCE — A video posted on Facebook Sunday of a man being pulled from an overbooked United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville has generated considerable negative response in the media.

United's terse statement about the incident in the hours that followed also likely reflects a shortsighted view of a brand's response to a crisis, said Noelle Nelson, a University of Kansas School of Business researcher on brands and consumer behavior.

"In general, brands do have to be more cognizant of the fact that their actions can be on display at any time," she said. "United's response to this incident may reflect the older model of 'wait and see how it unfolds' until big actions are taken. When social media is involved, these lackluster responses only add fuel to the fire."

Nelson, assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior, can address United's response to the incident. Her broad research portfolio includes studying working memory and negative effect in consumer behavior.

"Unfortunately, airline brands are special in that though consumers may be angry, they don't have as much power to boycott or force change as they do with other brands," she said.

While airlines may say things like, "Thank you for choosing United," in reality consumers have little choice. They usually need to fly at a certain time, to a certain place and will choose the lowest price, she said.

"Typically only one airline will meet that need. So, United's response to this incident may also reflect the fact that they know that consumers can do relatively little damage, even if the story spreads," Nelson said. " Even though United can get away with this strategy now, it's very shortsighted. New brands or even technology may eventually give consumers more freedom in their travel choices, and they're likely to have formed negative brand images about United."


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