Boeing has a brand problem

Boeing has a brand problem

Reading Time: 3 minutes

After a door panel blew out mid-flight, an FAA audit gave Boeing until the end of May to sort out continuing problems with its planes. The deadline is fast approaching, and it’s still unclear if executive exits, reshuffles and statements about “building on the learnings” will be enough to satisfy antsy regulators and nervous fliers. Who, after the most recent incident, began filtering their flight choices to exclude the 737 MAX.

That’s not a proverbial canary. It’s the chickens of a decades-long drift coming home to roost in the factory rafters where Boeing now assembles aeroplanes from pieces and parts made by others.

Chief among Boeing’s problems is their brand. Because when your daily choices break promises to, nearly everyone, it’s a short flight to irrelevance. And when those same decisions mock your values, people are right to question what you stand for.

Boeing of old was a byword for engineering excellence, and early leaders relentlessly conveyed the importance of the smallest detail. Founder Bill Boeing regularly walked the factory, literally stomping imperfect work to bits on the floor.

A far cry from newly resigned CEO David Calhoun’s response when asked about the door incident: he said the company had “no records of the work being performed” and so couldn’t know what went wrong!

That’s a doozy of a statement for any CEO, let alone one who was supposedly stewarding the safety and well-being of a hundred thousand workers and even more airline passengers. It also underlines the scale of the shift Boeing must make if it wants a brand that stands for more than mistakes.

Deciding when the wheels started to fall off depends on who you listen to. Some say it was in the 80s when, to save money, they shelved innovation and merely updated the existing 777 design. Others point to the 90s when the merger with McDonald Douglas, whose previous sole client was the Pentagon, swelled staff numbers and brought a different tolerance for risk and relationship to safety.

Perhaps it was in the 00s when they moved their executive headquarters to Chicago, outsourced almost everything, and sold off their manufacturing facility to private equity—choices that boosted the bottom line and abandoned accountability. Moves The Atlantic neatly describes as “turning the company that created the Jet Age into something akin to a glorified gluer-together of precast model-aeroplane kits”.

Or, more recently, when the combined hits of the pandemic and the timing of pension payment changes, drained experienced workers right when they needed them most. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union, which represents 30,000 Boeing employees, says, “the proportion of their members who have less than six years of experience has roughly doubled to 50% from 25% before the pandemic

Through it all, there was a board and executive push for more planes, faster. The pressure drove the core value of ‘crush bureaucracy’ past any sane outer marker. Shortcuts flourished, such as suppliers and mechanics signing off on their own work, parts going straight from receiving to the factory floor, and bypassing quality checks.

Any of these choices would be enough for an organisation and the resulting brand to fly off course.

Boeing appeared to decide that assembling planes was a reasonable proxy for manufacturing them. That outsourcing quality control and vital skill sets was the path to greater profitability. That inexperienced workers could do the same job as those with decades of know-how. That doing more was better than doing it right. And that shareholder value was more important than actual value.

Boeing’s every choice travelled through the organisation, into processes and the final product. Shredding the values and landing on airlines, their customers and eroding the brand.

In hindsight, it was a bad trade. Relentlessly negative press has cratered confidence, and their reputation is in a nosedive. The stock price, which skyrocketed when they shifted from making machines to engineering financials, is down over 50% from its 2019 high.

When you trade your values, products, smarts, people, and reputation (to name a few) for a short-term boost to the bottom line, the brand always takes a hit.

Once those things are lost, the cost to regain them erodes them even further by absorbing what you might otherwise invest in doing things better. For Boeing to learn how to be ‘Boeing again,’ it needs to realise that a brand is a store of value that only accumulates when the organisation keeps its promises.

Thanks for reading.

Share this