Is Apple the World’s First Essential Luxury Brand?

by Andy Cunningham

Apple announced amazing earnings this week with consistent growth across the board and the world. Revenue is substantially up in music and cloud services as well as wearables
while Apple Pay transactions tripled year-over-year and iPhone average selling price
increased from $606 to $724. The company achieved the strongest rate of growth in 11
quarters. Wow.

Apple used to be a tech company, but under Tim Cook, it has been moving steadily into the consumer goods arena. It’s no longer about The Next Big Thing in innovation. Now it’s all about the brand. And a unique brand it is. Apple has become the world’s first “Essential
Luxury Brand.”

This means it has reached two marketing milestones that are rarely seen in the same
company: social currency and addiction. Apple has achieved both.

Buying an Apple product offers the consumer an identity that comes with valuable social
currency. Apple products have become synonymous with the essence of cool tech savvyness combined with design sensibility and creativity. The cool kids don’t “use” Apple
products, they are “on” Apple. No surprise here as the Mac gained its entry to the business world through the back door of Creative and Marketing Departments in Corporate America. And right behind Mac was the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone and, of course, the App Store.

Most luxury consumer goods offer social currency. A Ferrari screams power and
masculinity. A Louis Vuitton bag reveals privilege. An Armani suit signals success. And a
bottle of Opus One indicates knowledge of wine as well as the wealth to buy the good stuff. But none of these brands has achieved their social currency while at the same time
inducing addiction—so much more than a craving. Addiction is actual dependence.

The minute you buy into the Apple ecosystem, your life runs on IOS. Everything that
matters to you is now tied to Apple through your iPhone. You’re dependent on it. You’re
addicted to it. You can’t—and moreover—you don’t want to get off it. You’re on Apple and you need more and more of it to survive. Apple Pay, Apple Watch, Apple Store and App Store, and all the other forthcoming A’s Apple will introduce such as Autonomous Anything, Artificial intelligence and Augmented reality are going to suck you further into the Apple vortex. The potential for growth in this company, even without The Next Big Thing, islimitless as it introduces more and more services for its users.

So seven years after Steve Jobs left this earth having created Next Big Thing after Next Big Thing, thanks to Tim Cook, world class steward of the visionary assets he was left, we have an even bigger, stronger Apple and a new category of company: the Essential Luxury Brand. Who will be next to capture social currency and addiction at the same time? A very tough act to follow.

From the Trenches of Transformation

A Series of Tips and Tricks

For the Transformational Marketing Agent

by Andy Cunningham



So you need to transform your brand, huh? Sales are drooping. New technology is disrupting. Pipeline is stagnant. People are leaving. It’s a cruel world out there and your company is no longer competitive. How could that be? Just a few short years ago you were on top of the world! Customers were clamoring for your products and services, and talent was lined up down the street for the chance to work there.

Brand transformations are rare. Sure, you can replace the CEO, slap on a new logo, create an enticing new tagline and, if you’ve got it, spend money on advertising to tell the world -- all of which gives your company a bit of a facelift as you do battle in the market. But a real brand transformation involves reimagining the company, redeploying assets, reorganizing structure, redesigning product, renewing the economic model, rewriting the narrative, reviving the spirit, re-engaging the stakeholders, reconfiguring marketing and sales, and resetting expectations. There’s a lot of “re” going on! Everything has to be “redone” from the ground up.

Transformations are at the very core of growth. When the environment shifts (as it inevitably does) and the market changes (ditto), companies must adapt or begin the long slow decline toward death. As they say, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. When there’s a new world out there someone has to reposition the company for success. And that someone might as well be you.

This new blog series explores the top ten keys to becoming a transformational marketing agent.

This week…

#1. Reimagine the Company:
A New World, A New Relevance
BlackBerry’s Pivot

BlackBerry is a company in full swing of transformation with an impressive leader in John Chen at the helm. At one point, BlackBerry was a giant in the land of smartphones. Most people who needed or wanted one had a BlackBerry. The company invented much of what the smartphone is today, and it built one of the world’s most globally recognized brands. BlackBerry was a market leader, and ruled the roost. But more than that, the company developed a strong emotional connection with their customers that persists even today. They love the company.

But the market changed. Apple introduced the iPhone. Google brought Android to market. Suddenly, competition was everywhere and moving fast. BlackBerry wasn’t fast enough. They lost their grip and fell behind. They watched their market share drop significantly and their relevance diminish over time. But all the while they continued to innovate in connected security and mobility, and they began to focus that innovation on software rather than hardware.

That’s when the board brought in a new CEO. John Chen joined in 2013 after a very successful stint turning around Sybase. He recognized BlackBerry’s legacy and believed the company could be a leader again, but this time by taking advantage of its assets in software, security and mobility, and phasing out the manufacture, distribution and marketing of handsets. 

Market Reaction and Product Traction

While John Chen was busy reconfiguring and restructuring, we got to work on reimagining. We found a white space in the market in the larger Internet of Things space and identified a hole we felt BlackBerry could fill and labeled it the Enterprise of Things (EoT). Just a few short months after going public in the new world with the new relevance the company was met with extremely positive reactions from industry analysts and business press as well as customers and shareholders. 

Positioning BlackBerry for a new relevance enabled the company to rally around a new north star and emerge with a totally new narrative, which has been disseminated everywhere, including marketing, events, sales and HR. Analysts, the press and — most important — customers have embraced it as well, recognizing BlackBerry’s leadership in (and ownership of) the newly validated EoT space.

After years of decline, BlackBerry’s stock hit a four-year high in June and is up 50% this year. But a shift in public perception began almost immediately. Within two months of the execution of our strategy to position the company for a new relevance, the media’s tone started to change. Whereas coverage had been relentlessly focused on Blackberry’s demise (Forbes: “Lessons From the Fall of BlackBerry”), the commentary shifted, first to BlackBerry’s pivot to the software and services industry (Fortune: “Yup, BlackBerry is now a software company”), and later to an acknowledgement of its renewed promise (Business Insider: “It looks like BlackBerry’s focus on software is starting to pay off”).

Today’s headlines are even more effusive. TechCrunch recently encapsulated the optimism surrounding BlackBerry’s transformation: “When you think about dead companies walking, BlackBerry was clearly one that came to mind, but…the company is actually making a comeback as a software company focused on security, and its latest quarterly earnings report suggests the pivot is working splendidly.”  Although BlackBerry’s final chapters have yet to be written, the future is promising. 

The Intangibles at the Core of Transformation

At the very core of a successful transformation are two intangibles. An inspirational north star and the will to win. The north star represents potential and possibility. It is evidence of a new destination. A guiding light for operations. The will to win emerges from a new belief system within the company. A winning attitude. The possibility of success. Not very concrete, yet so very critical. These are the stem cells of new growth. If you’re going to be a transformational marketing agent, you’re going to have to identify a new north star and then you’re going to have to infuse the will to win throughout the organization. 

While this may at first seem like an impossible task, it isn’t. When attacked with logic and rigor, it becomes rather obvious. The key is identifying the company’s assets and matching them with market opportunity. The asset inventory is the first step. Go ahead. Go crazy. Write down all the assets of the company. Then edit it down to the really core ones. There are probably two or three that really matter in this exercise. Take it down to the very nub. 

Then look at the market for the problems your company is seeking to solve as it transforms itself. Detect all the white spaces. Pay special attention to those that are susceptible to your company’s assets. Then stake out the territory. Claim it. Name it. Own it.

Now for the will to win. Without it, the north star is invisible. Inspiration is the key here. And a difficult emotion it is to incite. What it comes down to, though, is a belief system. The stakeholders and the market must have confidence that a new strategy is in place and that leadership is committed to it. Then they have to believe in that strategy. It has to make sense. It has to be easy to understand. There has to be continuous evidence of its logic. But it also has to be visionary and aspirational. It has to capture something new and interesting. Each and every stakeholder has to believe he or she has a role to play in the materialization of the vision. And the market has to believe it has a role to play as well. 

If you can create a ripple of emotion in the market through the articulation of an inspiring north star and you can show people their role in making it come to life, you have a shot at igniting a transformation. And there is nothing more rewarding for a marketing transformational agent than that! BlackBerry has inspired the industry with a new vision for itself in a resegmented market. It is no longer about the smartphone, but the smart in the phone—and in cars and containers, medical devices and wearables, consumer appliances and industrial machinery, and ultimately the entire enterprise, the Enterprise of Things. 

What’s your north star?


We are excited to announce  Cunningham Collective and BlackBerry won PRWeek's "Best in Corporate Branding" Award along with an Honorable Mention in "Best Global Effort" for the BlackBerry Brand Transformation: From Smart Phones to the Smart in the Phone  Learn more

Cunningham Collective and BlackBerry Win PRWeek’s 2018 “Best in Corporate Branding” Award Along With Honorable Mention for “Best Global Effort”

  Pictured from left to right: Mike Kolleth, Dow Chemicals (award presenter); Usher Lieberman, BlackBerry; Emily Stine, Cunningham Collective; Geoffrey Kidwell (host).     Photo credit: Erica Berger

Pictured from left to right: Mike Kolleth, Dow Chemicals (award presenter); Usher Lieberman, BlackBerry; Emily Stine, Cunningham Collective; Geoffrey Kidwell (host).

 Photo credit: Erica Berger

From Smart Phones to the Smart in the Phone

On March 15, 2018 Cunningham Collective and BlackBerry took home the PRWeek 2018 Award for “Best in Corporate Branding” along with an Honorable Mention in the “Best Global Effort” category. Emily Stine and Usher Lieberman attended the event to accept the awards on behalf of Cunningham Collective and BlackBerry respectively.

This year’s 2018 PRWeek Awards took place at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. As the Oscars of the communication industry, the PRWeek Awards celebrate industry leaders in corporate, agency, nonprofit and education teams for the work they have produced. The awards were judged by senior PR professionals and nominees included an all-star list of campaigns for brands such as Chevrolet, Dell, Disney, Hewlett-Packard, Gatorade and McDonalds.

Given the highly competitive field, we were thrilled to win the award for “Best in Corporate Branding” ahead of campaigns from Nielsen/Weber Shandwick/MRM McCann, Honeywell Aerospace/WE Communications and Gatorade/Fleishman Hillard among others. In addition, we were also proud to earn an Honorable Mention in the “Best Global Effort” category that included McDonald’s/The Narrative Group, Guinness/Ogilvy and Disney Consumer Products/Interactive Media.

Cunningham Collective and BlackBerry earned recognition for a brand transformation program that told the story of BlackBerry's strategic pivot to enterprise security software. Andy Cunningham, founder and CEO of Cunningham Collective, commented on the achievement: “We are excited and honored to be recognized for partnering with BlackBerry to position the company for future success in the enterprise security software market. It has been extremely rewarding working with CEO John Chen as he executes a turnaround story for the ages, and we look forward to continuing to help organizations like BlackBerry Get to Aha!”

At Cunningham Collective, helping clients “Get to Aha” is at the core of what we do. This DNA-based positioning framework is Cunningham Collective’s “secret sauce” and served as the key to helping BlackBerry redefine its role and relevance in a new marketplace. It begins with two fundamental questions based on corporate DNA: Who are you as a company? And why do you matter?

Andy Cunningham’s recently released book “Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition,” lays out this framework. The “6 C’s” of positioning (Community, Competition, Context, Core, Category and Criteria)” help a company understand who it is at its core, what that company does, what its primary value proposition is to its customers, how it is positioned against its competitors and finally how to tell the company story in a compelling way that resounds with its customers and market. As Andy writes in the book, “Know what you’re made of, so you can make something of it.”

In our work with BlackBerry, Cunningham Collective helped position the company by completely rebuilding its communication strategy with enterprise security software at the center. The Cunningham team, led by Andy Cunningham and Rosabel Tao, worked with BlackBerry for over a year to shift the public conversation from smartphones to its new strategy around the “Enterprise of Things.” As a result of the successful program, BlackBerry’s stock skyrocketed up 50% overall and reached a four­-year high in June 2017. One judge went so far as to say the campaign should be credited with "bringing a brand back to life."

Curious about our success in helping BlackBerry transform from a smartphone manufacturer to a leading enterprise security software company? Email us today to learn how we can help your company do the same.

If you are interested in learning more about the winners of the PRWeek 2018 Awards, please visit

Creating a Luxury Brand in Ten (Not So) Easy Steps


What makes a luxury brand? And how do you build one?

A friend is creating a new luxury brand of water. Yes. Water. It comes from a hard-to-reach artesian well in the Austrian Alps, contains just the right cocktail of minerals, has a perfect PH balance and is untouched by human hands from source to esophagus. It is delicious. It is natural and healthy. It is expensive. It is also water positioned as a luxury. Brilliant! How is Hallstein Water doing it?

When luxury comes to mind, so do Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Gulf Stream, Opus One, Lalique, the St. Regis and other “high end” expensive consumer brands. We all know them even though not all of us are supporters. These and all luxury brands share three attributes: high quality, scarcity of product and cult of personality. So before you attempt to capture the magic and margin of a luxury brand, make sure you have these in spades.

And beyond that, it’s AP Marketing. From targeting the right customers to generating loyalty among them, do these ten things well and you’ll be on the road to developing a luxury brand. Just remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

1.     Target Market: The right “who” makes all the difference. Determining the best beachhead for building the brand is critical. Who will be most likely to buy the product? To tell others about it? To be loyal? Understanding the ideal market segment for a luxury product is the key to building a brand.

2.     Positioning Strategy: Positioning is the simple articulation of the unique role and relevance of the product in the market. How is it special and differentiated from competitors? And how to articulate this simply and compellingly? Without a unique position brands bang into each other in the market and become confusing to the customer.

3.     Branding: The brand stands for something near and dear to the target market’s heart. What is that? Brands are more than a great product. They hit at the very core of a person’s identity and accentuate it. And every touch point with a customer is an opportunity to reinforce the brand.

4.     Brand Narrative: There is a compelling story behind every brand. What is that story? What is the reason for customers to believe in this brand? Why this brand, why now? A great corporate narrative can go a long way toward building a following.

5.     Evangelists: Breaking new ground in an old market requires that influencers push the brand as much as the company and its customers. Who are the influencers to be targeted here? How do we engage them in telling our story? This is accomplished through influencer marketing.

6.     Piggybacking: Most great brands piggyback on the success of other great brands that do not compete but intersect. What are the options for piggybacking here? Partnerships, strategic alliances, cross promotions, etc. comprise a piggybacking strategy.

7.     Awareness Generation: Nothing happens in brand building without awareness. It is possible to build substantial awareness through a company’s own media channels (website, blog, social media) and its earned ones (press and analysts). The larger the digital footprint a company creates for itself with a compelling story, the more searchable it becomes and the more awareness generated.  This is done through content marketing and public relations. When budgets allow, paid advertising can also play a big role in building a luxury brand. You can start with Google ad words and go all the way to a Super Bowl ad. Targeting these ads is critical. Their placement must align with the target market.

8.     Thought Leadership: Positioning the company at the center of a global conversation that matters can be a very powerful marketing tool. It leads to inclusion in press coverage on the issue, policy discussions related to the issue and expert status for speaking events.

9.     Customer Communication and Community Building: Brands can no longer sustain themselves merely through product sales. A relationship must be established with the customer. Ongoing communication must take place. Dialog is critical. Community building essential.

10. Customer Loyalty: Loyalty fuels the great luxury brands. They establish themselves by further enhancing the lifestyle the purchaser has chosen to adopt. Carefully determining this lifestyle, articulating it in a compelling fashion, making it visible as a “label” for customers, propelling the lifestyle forward are all critical to building a luxury brand. Part of this involves building an emotional connection with your customers and part of it can be accomplished with loyalty program technology.





“Who are you as a company? And why do you matter?”

By Ryan Walker

Andy Cunningham recently posed this question at the reception celebrating her new book: Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition. The event took place at the Northwestern San Francisco campus on the evening of Monday, October 30.

The evening included refreshments, mingling and book signings. The highlight of the event was a discussion with Andy about the release of her new book hosted by moderator and fellow Northwestern alum Theresa Chong.

Andy discussed the landmark achievements that shaped her career and book, including working with Steve Jobs to launch the original Apple Macintosh. Andy shared anecdotes from her time working with Silicon Valley legends including Jobs and Regis Mckenna, explaining how these experiences taught her the necessity of marketing authenticity to create a compelling and differentiated brand. As Andy put it: "Find out what you're made of, so you can make something of it."

During the Q&A, Andy was asked about the process of identifying the genuine core of companies. By reverse engineering her past successes, Andy eventually came to the conclusion that “companies are like humans: They have their own DNA.” When companies identify that DNA, they can unlock their genuine role and relevance in the marketplace. As Andy pointed out, “positioning must be authentic and credible to be sustainable. Humans have an incredible radar for authenticity.”

Thanks to everyone who came out for the event, and we hope you had as much fun as we did!

Andy’s New Book Get to Aha! Now Available


Today is a big day at Cunningham Collective! The founder of our firm, Andy Cunningham, has released her first book, Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition.

The book begins with two questions: Who are you as a company? Why do you matter?

These are two very simple questions but they are fundamental for understanding who your company is at your core, what your company does, what your primary value proposition is to your customers, how you are positioned against its competitors and finally how to tell its story in a compelling way to your customers and to the market.

In the chapters that follow, Andy describes the framework she has developed over decades of working with technology companies. It’s a methodology we put to work every day at Cunningham Collective. Our name reflects the truly collaborative nature of our client engagements and the diverse range of talents we bring to bear in our work.  

Part II of the book looks at our Aha! methodology in action, with six case studies of real companies that faced real positioning challenges in the real world. In these chapters, Andy recounts the transformational “Aha moments” from our DNA positioning workshops that put them on a journey to market success.

It’s precisely those moments that make Andy’s DNA methodology so successful. Any branding agency can deliver a fancy presentation with clever copy and fancy brand colors to a room of executives, the result of weeks of months of work with their creative team. But without a disciplined process that brings together the right people to work together on a positioning framework they can all get behind, that work, no matter how well-conceived, is at risk to fall flat.

Order your copy of Get to Aha! today at

Motherhood Isn’t For Everyone

Originally published on the McGraw-Hill Professional Business Blog.

Customer experience isn’t for everyone. Really. If it’s not part of your corporate DNA, you shouldn’t make it the focal point of your business. That should be an expression of your DNA. If you’re truly a customer-oriented company, or a “Mother” (in the parlance of my new book, Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate the Competition), customer service should be paramount. But if you happen to be a product-oriented company, or a “Mechanic,” product features and value need to take center stage. And if you’re the bearer of a world-changing concept, or a “Missionary,” your Next Big Thing or Cult of Personality should reign supreme.

DNA is at the root of everything—in people as well as companies—when it comes to competitive advantage. Just think about professional athletes and how their DNA influences their performance. Businesses should reflect the substance of a company, not an image dreamed up by the marketing department.

The Customer-Centric Conundrum

Yes, companies need to attract customers and keep them. But not every company succeeds with that because of the customer experience they’ve crafted. There’s a belief out there—a misplaced philosophy—that all companies must be customer-centric, what I call the Customer-Centric Conundrum. Customer-centricity is a popular trend that causes companies to work outside their corporate DNA; it’s a fad that’s gotten out of control. It’s easy to see how that happened. It sounds so warm and fuzzy to delight the customer, to be customer-centric, to listen to the customer, and so forth. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

But winning in business is about understanding what makes your product or service better than the competition and then leveraging that in your quest to conquer markets and keep customers.

If you discover that you are, in fact, a Mother, and you choose to differentiate and win because of the experience you offer your customers, you’ll need to nourish your company’s propensity to nurture customer connections. How you hire people, how you compensate those hires, how you measure individual and group success, what you talk about in meetings, your choice of language and tone of voice, your corporate structure—everything must be geared toward maintaining those precious customer relationships.

The Importance of Knowing What You’re Made Of

Here’s what Mothers like Disney, Lyft. Nordstrom, and Zappos do every day. They focus on customers in management discussions; measure success in terms of relationships—not just sales—initiate tracking studies and market research to get to know their customers; create a customer experience that transcends product offerings; measure profits against customer segments; drive marketing through brand and customer loyalty;motivate employees to excel at customer service; and work tirelessly to ensure that their value proposition delights customers.

Is your company a Mother? If so, make sure every single thing your company does is geared to support Mother DNA. Otherwise, you’ll be expending energy on the wrong things. Knowing what you’re made of helps you make something of it.

Companies Are Like People

Originally published on The Huffington Post UK

The Human Genome Project completed in 2003 gave us the miraculous ability to understand who we are through our DNA. And thanks to enterprising entrepreneurs, we now have tools to explore our own DNA and learn what our genes say about us: our origins, our coloring, our tastes and our propensity for certain diseases. Armed with this understanding, we can construct a lifestyle that is aligned with our genes to help us fight off the maladies that afflict our DNA type. 

Know your DNA and be a better you.

But just as people can understand much of who we are from our DNA, so too can companies. Like people, companies are organisms that reflect their creators, their environments, their obstacles, and their strengths. They carry a core instruction set that informs the actions and outcomes of their work. In short, they have DNA. Not chemical, biological DNA, of course, but what I call corporate DNA.

While human DNA is ineffably complex, its business equivalent is far simpler, made up of just three kinds of companies. That’s it: only three types of companies in the world, each with its own distinctive DNA. Just as I look the way I look because of my DNA and you look the way you do because of yours, companies are what they are because of their DNA, and every organization expresses the DNA of one of these types. 

Although it is less complex, each DNA type resembles its human counterpart: Mothers are customer-oriented companies, Mechanics are product-oriented companies, and Missionaries are concept-oriented companies. After having consulted for more than 30 years with hundreds of companies to help them find their optimal position in the market and tell their stories compellingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that all companies fit into one of these DNA types. I’ve also learned that knowing which type you are is extremely helpful in developing a go-to-market strategy that sticks.

All living species are influenced by a mixture of DNA and environment, and when it comes to corporate DNA, companies are no different. DNA affects a company’s culture; its structure; how it measures success; how it hires, trains, and rewards employees; how it allocates resources; how it frames its narrative; and how it decides what brand to send out into the world. DNA is the single biggest factor when it comes to identifying a company’s role and relevance in the market and determining its optimal positioning.

The key to maximizing competitive advantage is to pinpoint your corporate DNA and use it to your advantage, just like an athlete. The idea is to use your DNA to position your company in the market so that you can win. Your DNA and how it is reflected in your position should lie at the center of every single decision you make, from your go-to-market strategy, to the skill set you seek in your hires, to the way you invest precious resources. It is the foundation for all external messages and campaigns, from branding, to sales strategy, to web copy, to brochure design.

Knowing what you’re made of helps you make something of it.

Finding the Little Dipper Among Sea of Stars: How a Crisis Can Uncover Deeper Issues

Lessons from United Airlines

By Rosabel Tao and Jason Middleton at Cunningham Collective

It’s clear that United Airlines’ handling of its crisis last week has been a first class PR failure. It’s looked more like a slow-motion pileup on the highway -- one car after another, careening into the previous one, with only diminishing damage with each collision.

From the CEO’s tone-deaf first response, to a new, only somewhat unrelated removal of paying passengers — newlyweds, no less! — United is providing a use case of how not to handle a crisis.

On the surface, there’s a viral video of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat -- and the plane — that not only has him screaming, but other passengers horrified as they witness what resembles the removal of a violent protester during a riot.

Then there was the corporate-babble initial response from the company that not only sounded insincere, but also poisoned the well for all subsequent announcements. And it’s still going on. Yesterday, CEO Oscar Munoz continued his apology tour on the earnings call.

We previously talked about how companies bungle their crisis response, why that first statement is so important and what a “good” statement is.

[Click HERE for the first installment on how to handle a public relations crisis: The importance of a company’s first public statement or response.]

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, the primary focus is on understanding what happened and why. As the smoke begins to clear during crisis response, a company turns its attention to the underlying reasons of how it happened.

The how of anything can be a difficult truth to uncover, but it is critical for that company, moving forward, to begin repairing relationships with stakeholders, especially customers.

Often, one of the causes of how points to the corporate culture. Those cultural cracks are shown in stark relief during a crisis.

Any company can be exposed to an unexpected crisis. That said, it is possible to weather a crisis more gracefully if it has already built a well of goodwill with its stakeholders, including such as customers, partners, employees and even government regulators.

This value of goodwill should not be overlooked. If a company has a better, more positive reputation in the first place, it’s more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when a negative issue emerges.

Businesses need to invest in building goodwill continually – not just one-offs – by demonstrating positive commitment to customers and the communities in which they operate. This helps build trust, credibility and loyalty – which will help companies ride out the tough times.

In fairness to United, it’s a challenge to build goodwill within the airline industry. Major factors are not in their control — things like weather, long security lines at airports and copious regulations.

That said, what they can control is their customer-facing identity. United had problems before this situation. According to study by J.D. Power, it scored last in passenger satisfaction amongst the traditional airlines, so it’s no surprise how harshly it’s been judged.

Rosabel Tao, a principal at Cunningham Collective, has more than 25 years of corporate communications experience. She knows first-hand about the importance of a well-crafted, timely first response. She has also helped guide a major financial brand into newer, more productive waters when it comes to building a customer-satisfaction culture.

Here’s an excerpt from a question-and-answer session. In addition to these answers, please listen to our podcast to hear more about how companies find themselves in the middle of a crisis.

Jason: We’ve had some real PR nightmares so far in 2017. We’ve had Uber, Nivea, Pepsi, Sean Spicer and now United. I think everyone has seen that video from the United flight by now. So let’s take that one as an example for a PR nightmare that’s playing out in the public. Why do you think United reacted the way they did?

Rosabel: Crisis communications situations are so complex. There are a thousand factors that can go into them. I can’t really speak to why they reacted why they did, but we do know is that it took them a long time to come out with that first statement.

And that first statement is so important in every crisis situation, because every communication after that is filtered through that first one. So, it’s super important to get that first one right.

J: OK, let’s drill into United’s first statement. It did miss the mark. It came across as uncaring or unemotional – like it was no big deal. Doesn’t that approach just leave people cold?

R: Yes, in fact I think that’s a big crisis-management “don’t.” Some crisis experts consider Exxon-Mobile as being the standard bearer for a bad crisis response, but now they’re saying United has topped Exxon in that category.

They actually ended up having two crises. A primary one and a secondary crisis that stemmed from the fact their response was so late, and so very much off the mark.

Back in the days of Exxon-Mobil’s crisis, we didn’t have social media, so things didn’t quite zip around as fast as they do today. It took United a day and a half to respond. During that day and a half, that video has been seen at least 210 million times.

When there is a long delay in releasing the first statement, it gives the public ample opportunity to fill in the void with all manner of recrimination, real or not, fair or not.

Plus, it is really hard to get over the visuals of what happened. It was so disturbing. None of us can “un-see” what we saw. Without a compelling, dynamic response, United will be recovering from this crisis for years.

The first moments after something breaks, mass chaos can ensue. Companies are spending their first few moments trying to understand what exactly happened, and why. What preceded the event for that to happen? What was the cause? Was the passenger a suspected terrorist? Was he threatening the staff?

J: So you're in a war room, how do those talk points happen for responding to the public during this?

R: The first thing that happens after you assess the situation and try to understand what's going on. In some ways, I think of it as trying to identify the litter dipper in a sea of stars. Once you see the dipper, you can identify the North Star and then you will understand what you need to do. That’s why having a crisis preparedness in plan helps, it’ll get you to the North Star more quickly.

J: Let’s continue about the ‘war room.’ Let’s say you have input from key decision makers. Now it seems as if it’s almost a “discovery” phase as the company tries to nail down the “what” and the ”why” of the situation.

Does anything else come out of that discovery phase?

R: In the very first moments of a crisis you’re really focusing on what happened and why it happened – what were the events leading up to what went down.

Then, as the smoke begins clearing, you’re immediately turning your attention to “how did this happen?” Almost always in these situations it’s not the actions of one or two rogue employees, that’s very rarely the case.

Usually it’s a larger, systemic issue going on in the company that allows something like this to happen.

In United’s case, the front-line employees probably did not feel like they had enough leeway to really resolve the situation above and beyond the playbook that they were given.

I think that’s also very common. Companies are trying to exert so much control that could happen that it backfires on them. Employees aren’t empowered enough to do the right thing for customers in the moment it happens. When a problem occurs, there is not enough time to go through a complicated or time-consuming approval process.

J: That’s a fine line for a company, because if they don’t have control they’re exposed to risk. If they’re too tightly controlled, then the point-of-contact with a customer can go off the rails.

You mentioned earlier systemic problems that can be exposed during a crisis.

R: It’s a combination of two things – systems or processes and company culture.

J: So it’s a cultural issue that may have been calcified over time?

R: Right. In this particular case, my conjecture is that United’s front-line employees didn’t feel like they had an opportunity to really paint outside the lines. In other words, to really try and resolve the customer situation in that moment above and beyond what’s in their rulebook.

J: Changing even part of a corporate culture can be difficult though…

R:  True. Cultural change is extremely hard, but it can be done if it starts from the top and the company is committed to change at all levels. Authenticity is key. People know when they’re just getting lip service from a company.

For a real-life example of changing corporate culture after a corporate crisis, please check out the podcast within this post.

Also, please let us know your thoughts, or share a case study, in the comments section below.

United Airlines: Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea

When a Crisis Strikes

By Rosabel Tao

Between the devil and the deep blue sea. That’s what managing a crisis is like. If you’ve never heard the term, it means “to choose between two undesirable situations."

My husband asked me a good question: “If you were handling PR for United, what would you have done?” First off, what happened was a catastrophe in every way. It was shocking and extremely disturbing. Combined with the terrible way they handled it, this is going haunt them for a long, long time.

Even when companies have the best intentions, a blundered response can make them instantly seem guilty, or even sinister. That’s why the first statement is critical. It sets the tone for how people will receive future communications. While you can’t plan for a crisis, you can plan for an orderly and sensitive response.

A lot of companies bungle their first (and sometimes the second and even third) response.  

There could a be a lot of reasons, such as:

  • They are in denial
  • They initially misjudge the severity of situation
  • They underestimate or think they can outrun the public’s reaction
  • They hope (unreasonably) it’ll pass quickly and go away on its own
  • They err too far on the side of caution and by the time they respond, the story is too far gone
  • They are worried about saying too much or admitting fault for fear of legal reprisal
  • They are operating on a different value system than the public has
  • Their privacy policies, government regulations or legal confidentiality clauses limit how transparent they can be

How does that happen? When a crisis hits, there are a thousand factors to take into considering a response. Behind the scenes, there is a certain cadence that almost always plays out in the early moments after a crisis hits:

  • You're caught flat-footed. You have no advance warning. (You can plan for some incidents, but I’m not sure anyone could have anticipated this one.)
  • Even if notified immediately, you don’t have much information, so you’re not sure what exactly happened, how and why. Often, it's mass confusion.
  • As soon as you hear about the incident, you gather all the key executives to assess the situation and make decisions. Inevitably, there is at least one critical person who is not immediately reachable (i.e., they are on a plane, on vacation in Siberia, whatever) and that person has to be tracked down.
  • Meanwhile, the initial story goes viral and people draw conclusions before you’re able to provide background and context. All this puts you immediately 10 steps behind.
  • This in turn immediately triggers an avalanche of media inquiries, outraged consumers on social media, questions from concerned employees, customer service calls and more. Everyone is pressuring the company to say something, anything. All this can happen in less than an hour.
  • You do not want to issue a response until you have facts, contingencies and a full vetting of the story, but that takes time — time you do not have, as the story is reverberating around the world.
  • There are a lot of competing opinions in the Executive suite. Saying too much puts you at legal risk in the case of a lawsuit. Saying too little puts you at PR risk. (I’m sure you can guess which side I’m on.) That’s why you’re “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” It’s a precarious balance and you try to find a statement that appeases all sides.
  • A statement is drafted and all the key people have to review and edit it. If the situation is technically complicated, you have to find a way to explain it simply but thoroughly. This is difficult to do because when you oversimplify it, you lose some of the nuance. Hopefully you still end up with a strong statement, but as we saw with United, it can easily get watered down in the process.

Any company can suffer from an unexpected crisis. It’s how they respond that sets them apart. While every crisis has its own unique set of circumstances, it helps to have a crisis preparedness plan in place. The plan should anticipate all the possible crisis scenarios and pre-determine exactly how you will handle the internal and external communications process. You cannot possibly anticipate every scenario, but having a plan allows you to reach decisions more quickly in the thick of confusion and the pressure of the moment and help ensure you get the response right.

When Your Brand is Heading Into a Free Fall, Do Not Push it Over the Cliff

United Off a Cliff.png


While I can’t know why United chose to respond the way they did, everyone knows that their first statement was a disaster.

It took United a day and a half to release their first statement, and when they did, it was cold, bland and totally off base: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Re-accommodating customers?! That reads more like apologizing for having to move someone’s seat — not forcibly removing a paying passenger from a plane that United, itself, intentionally overbooked.

United’s statement was widely mocked for being ridiculous and tone deaf. (Case in point: Washington Post headline: "United Ridiculed for Corporate Speak.") Later, United issued two more external statements — each one stronger than the last. On the third day, United's CEO fell on his sword again, going on Good Morning America to humbly apologize and relay that he felt "shame." 

And the fallout continues…

That’s why it’s critical that the first statement is “good.” It sets the tone for how people will receive future communications. So, that begs the question: what is a “good” statement?

A “good” statement is one that:

  • Is issued immediately, ideally within a few hours or at least the same day, even if you don’t have all the facts. It’s more important to acknowledge the situation, show caring and provide updates as more details emerge
  • Demonstrates a human and humane response; takes responsibility and apologizes with sincerity, empathy and remorse
  • Does not hide behind corporate-speak and legalese. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral or right and no one will make that distinction in the court of public opinion
  • Communicates steps you are taking to rectify the specific problem (i.e., third party investigation, etc.) and how you will address the broader underlying cause of the issue
  • Promises to keep people updated on your progress and completion of these steps

You’ll see that United’s last statements did follow these guidelines – but how much better would it have been if they said it in the first place?

Let’s recognize it’s extremely hard to strike the right balance of expressing genuine contrition but also not exposing the company to more risk. However, when your brand is in heading into a free fall, this is not the time to err on the side of caution. You can still save it. The event that precipitated the crisis is bad enough but a poorly handled response can push the brand off a cliff.

Loss of trust and reputation costs real and lasting damage to a brand’s value (See Volkswagen as a cautionary tale) that will take years to recover from – if ever.


Rosabel Tao is a Communications Strategist at Cunningham Collective.