United’s Polaris star obscured by product identity questions

What is United Polaris, the new airline brand? Is it the new Zodiac Aerospace SKYlounge-based seats? A set of updated meals? The Bloody Mary or wine flight cart? The amenity kit? The variety of sundae toppings? The forthcoming lounges (only Chicago’s is open)? The duvet and pillow? The on-some-flights, limited-supplies pajamas? The this-week-only bear? During its launch week — and for the foreseeable future — the Venn Diagram of those elements is very fuzzy, and that could be a problem for the medium and long term health of the brand.

By and large, the soft product rollout has gone well. The new bedding seems to be popular, and most passengers have received their commemorative stuffed polar bear. The meal service seems to be getting mixed reviews, but the real problem is the seats. United’s Zodiac Aerospace-produced Polaris seats — the airline’s first with direct aisle access in business — won’t roll out until next year. Neither will the rest of the new lounges.

For most people buying it right now, the Polaris experience is essentially the same as before but with slightly nicer bedding, a bit of a food and beverage upgrade, and a teddy bear — and the bear is going away next week.

If passengers end up thinking of Polaris as “the Bloody Mary cart is nice, and this polar bear is cute, but I still have to crawl over the person sleeping next to me” then United needs to do some thinking about how to position the product to passengers.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but rebranding an airline product isn’t revolutionary.

When Delta rebranded BusinessElite to Delta ONE, it did so without a specific seat upgrade at the same time. This clearly seems to have been a more successful exercise in matching advertising and expectations.


There are, of course, many other paths that United could have taken in the rebrand. It could have differentiated the new seating and service product from the existing seating and service: United Polaris Business for the new and something else for the old. United Classic Business and United Classic First, perhaps, or even keeping the BusinessFirst and Global First branding but offering the Polaris soft product amenities as a surprise and delight trailer for the real thing.

Another option, which a number of other airlines have taken: debrand Global First as a product — given that it exists only on those aircraft with its least impressive 2-4-2 forwards-backwards business class seat — and offer the inward-facing herringbone seats with the Polaris soft product as a perk for elite cardholders or those buying the highest fare, most flexible tickets.

United isn’t operating in a vacuum, and if it wants to become a carrier of choice rather than a fortress hub default, it needs to truly offer a consistently superior product. Right now it’s hard for most flyers to truly say what Polaris is.

The future of the Polaris brand will depend on how United decides to manage the message during the extended period while it is selling non-Polaris seats as Polaris Business.

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