United, Continental: Hooking Up Has Its Benefits


When big brands merge, it’s always interesting to theorize about which brand will ultimately benefit most from the union.

Obviously, both brands bring something to the table in terms of assets and liabilities. But in the case of the United-Continental merger, which will create the largest airline in the world, it’s United that stands to gain from “the rub-off from Continental’s surprisingly high goodwill among consumers.”

According to Ad Age, industry analysts describe Continental as “one of the only U.S.-based legacy carriers with any amount of consumer goodwill in its back pocket,” largely due to the airline’s excellent customer service and liberal frequent flyer program.

United, on the other hand, “has done a lot to ruin their image from what it was 10 to 12 years ago,” says Robert Herbst an airline analyst. Syndicated travel columnist Chris Elliott agrees that Continental has the better brand; “they’re known for having a proactive customer service department.”[more]

Indeed, it is customer service that may make all the difference in distinguishing the reborn United (which will be the name of the new airline, which will bear Continental’s logo) from its competitors.

These days, it seems airlines have fallen into the trap of promoting price before anything else. While consumers want the lowest price, “the fact is they know there’s a big difference between JetBlue and American,” says Chris Elliott, referring to JetBlue’s service extras, which it’s now playing up in a new “experiential marketing” campaign.

While the new airline will adopt the United name, it will apply the graphic look of Continental to the merged brand, no doubt hoping to reinforce the fact that what flyers like about Continental isn’t going away. Continental’s CEO, Jeff Smisek, will run the new airline, which should also help maintain the customer service focus.

But as other merged airlines have proven, being bigger isn’t always better. Case in point: the recent Delta-Northwest merger, which may not have done the larger, better-known Delta brand much good.

In the latest “Airline Quality Rating” ranking published last month, Delta ranked 15th in a list of 18 airlines. United didn’t fare much better — it ranked 13th.

Continental, on the other hand, was number 6. The 20-year old Airline Quality Rating system uses criteria concerning on-time flights, denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and customer complaints to objectively rank U.S. airlines.

United and Continental have a lot of work to do to convince the public that flying united is a good thing.