United Airlines has been flying with turbulence these past few weeks. The rocky flight started before they even left the ground in Denver, where the airline barred two teenage girls traveling on employee passes from boarding a flight for wearing leggings. When an observer with a large social media following live tweeted the exchange, it went viral, and the social media monster that looms over all brands went to work, clawing at the United Airlines dress code policy and eating the brand as an in-flight meal.
Dramatic? Maybe. But with the increase in visibility provided by social media platforms, what was once a small incident among only a few individuals can quickly become a national movement. It’s unlikely the marketing, communications, and public relations team at United Airlines intended to spend the last two weeks of March defending a “buddy pass” dress code policy that actually reflects the policies of multiple competitors. The social media beast probably feels particularly vicious at the moment.
Regardless of how right or wrong United Airlines might be with their policy and its enforcement, they have, effectively, poked the bear. This particular incident highlights the power of consumer loyalty and identity, as individuals who identify with leggings (Chrissy Teigen, Sarah Silverman, and others) rushed to defend leggings as appropriate travel wear. Someone who doesn’t wear leggings might not understand why others would feel so strongly about them, but people who have spent the last 10 years defending leggings as pants have an array of tightly-knit product associations. Leggings, for this group, correspond with feminism, yoga, and personal freedom. United Airlines, by enforcing this policy, pitted themselves against leggings and against these associations. The leggings walked off with the win.
United Airlines unintentionally isolated a vocal group of potential customers and signaled that the brand is not for people like “them.” By ignoring the greater social conversation about leggings, they left their “buddies” standing at the gate… to be picked up by Delta, who made it all too clear that flying Delta means flying in comfort.