United Polaris and the Rise of the Branded Experience

By now you’re probably aware that United has launched an all-new Business Class which it is calling Polaris. This follows in the footsteps of Delta One in that it’s an effort to brand the entire premium cabin experience differently from a) traditional premium cabin branding (eg Business Class) and b) coach. The nuts and bolts of this new offering all seem to come together nicely, but it’s the idea behind the branding that’s really grabbing me.

Though airlines have tried to leapfrog each other over the last few years when it comes to the premium cabin, this move by United doesn’t do that. This is mostly playing catch-up.

The new seat isn’t revolutionary from a customer-perspective. It looks like a good flat bed seat and will be competitive with any Business Class seat you’ll find. From an airline perspective, however, this design is going to allow for higher density and that’s a good thing… as long as it’s comfortable.

The seat will first join the fleet on the 777-300ER when its delivered late this year. All 787-10 and A350-1000 aircraft will have it installed off the bat. When it comes to retrofitting existing aircraft, presumably the 777s and 767s that have the pre-merger United subpar flat beds will be retrofitted first. (Those are the 777s with the 2-4-2 configuration.) Eventually the rest of the 777s (excluding the domestic aircraft which will keep the old 2-4-2 seats) and 767s will be retrofitted, as will the 787-8/9s. I haven’t heard about the 757s, and the 747s will not be retrofitted. Those will be retired in the next couple years.

What’s notable about this is that United will have the same seat on every widebody in its fleet. You can’t say that about Delta or American with their different seating options. Further, once the 747s are gone and the 777s are reconfigured, United will get rid of international First Class entirely. That means the United long haul premium cabin experience will all be based off the same seat fleetwide. I’m a big fan of a consistent experience like this, and it does make it easier to brand.

The brand itself is being built around the idea of sleep. According to United, it “conducted more than 12,000 hours of research, and sleep emerged as the single most important priority for international business class travelers.” To that I say… how the hell did you need 12,000 hours of research to figure that out!? But ok, so it’s all about sleep. In that sense, the branding works well. When I think of Polaris, I think of a clear, quiet night sky. The logo reflects that too.

United is looking at this as more than just a seat, of course. It’s digging deep and trying to make a coherent experience from start to finish. It partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for bedding, which seems old and stodgy to me but I’ve been told that’s not an accurate view of the brand these days. There are also duvets, mattress pads, slippers, gel-cooled pillows and on flights over 12 hours, pajamas. The detail goes down pretty far here with even a “calming lavender pillow mist” going into the amenity kits. The onboard experience feels as if it’s been thought through.

Of course this can’t be entirely about sleeping, and it’s not. There is an upgrade to the food and beverage service as well, both in the air and on the ground. On longer flights, there are even going to be hot mid-flight snacks available. That to me actually does bring it right back to the sleep theme. People can sleep when they want and still be able to eat something substantial on their own schedule.

The ground experience is the one place where United is notably trying to better differentiate itself from American and Delta. It is replacing its Global First lounges with Polaris lounges in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Its renovations in LA will also result in the opening of a Polaris Lounge. And in Newark and Houston, it will build new Polaris lounges from scratch.

These lounges look pretty swanky with day beds (sleeeeeeep), hot food, showers, and no way to buy-in as can be done with the United Clubs. Is that necessary? Eh. Doesn’t do it for me, but leading carriers around the world have seen value in a lounge especially for premium cabin customers. I don’t know that it’ll influence purchase decision, but it should make people happier when they board the airplane.

What United is doing is creating a consistent experience for premium cabin travelers, and that is no small feat. Of course, it has to follow through with this and make sure it doesn’t dilute the offering by whacking amenities at the next downturn (which, if United lives up to its past, is inevitable), but it has built itself a nice solid offering. The question is… does that offering (or the offering of any airline) need to be branded or can it just be billed as a Business Class? (Or maybe Connoisseur Class, anyone?)

Airlines have become enamored with hotels over the years. They’re really in love with the idea of separate brands for distinct offerings. Historically in the US, all those ideas went into branding standalone low cost carriers. Think Ted and Song. But what the airlines have finally come around to realize is that the best kind of differentiation happens in the same tube. American President Scott Kirby referred to this at a recent conference saying that coach is like the Holiday Inn. And that means, the premium cabin is like Intercontinental. Or in Starwood terms….

If you’re a Starwood loyalist, you know what Westin stands for, and you know it’s totally different than what Four Points stands for. (If you know what Sheraton stands for, please let me know since that brand is all over the map.) United, like Delta to a lesser extent, is trying to apply that multi-brand strategy to the airline industry but finally without trying to operate a separate airline. Finally. And its first real brand is Polaris.

Were it not for the goofy way airlines sell tickets through third parties, this might be an easier thing to accomplish. After all, hotels aren’t in rigid classes. People just know that a Hampton Inn and a Four Points are pretty similar, as are a Hilton and a Marriott. These are brands that have been built up over time, and people know what they stand for. But United? It’s all things to all people. So just as Starwood has Westin, Sheraton, and Four Points, why can’t United have Polaris, Sirius, and Vega? Maybe the next brand should be for its soon-to-be-released basic economy product. I think I have the perfect name.

In all seriousness, however, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. When I think about a hotel brand, that helps set my expectations. When I think about United or Delta, I think of a lot of different things. Maybe United Polaris is the first step (along with Delta One, which could be followed by Delta Two and Delta Three… or not) toward a smarter effort to brand classes as the truly differentiated products they are becoming.


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Muscat,  Oman
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