United’s Premature Polaris Marketing — Brilliant Or Stupid?

Filed Under: United

Last June United announced that they’d be eliminating their “BusinessFirst” in favor of “Polaris,” the name for their new business class product. As part of this, United is overhauling both their hard product and soft product.

As of December 1, 2016, all longhaul flights feature the new Polaris soft product, which includes improved pillows, pajamas on ultra longhaul flights, better food, etc.

While the soft product launched on December 1, not a single plane in operation yet features the new seat United has talked so much about. The seat will be debuting on United’s first 777-300ER, which they just recently took delivery of. However, it will be about five years before existing planes are reconfigured with the new seat.


Did United market Polaris too early?

Some would argue that United has marketed Polaris in a bold way. They began the marketing campaign long before the product launched, and even launched the supposed product before a single plane had the new seats, which was the most exciting part.

There’s not a day that has gone by since the product launched that I haven’t been asked by someone “will my plane feature Polaris?”

So there are two things that stand out to me about United Polaris:

  • People are really excited about it, and view it as a huge improvement over the existing product; they’re not flying business class anymore, but rather “Polaris”
  • There’s a lot of confusion from people about what a “Polaris” flight is; many people think that if their ticket shows Polaris, they’re getting the whole experience, including the seat, which isn’t the case

Or maybe they marketed it just right?

Most people who knew what to expect going into a Polaris flight have shared positive thoughts about the experience. Some viewed the new product as a minor improvement, while others viewed it as a huge improvement.

Meanwhile I’ve also received some feedback from people who were disappointed, as they thought they were going to get the new seat that they’ve seen so many pictures of, but instead ended up in a cabin featuring eight seats per row in business class.

But Forbes ran a story that I think might just show how brilliant United is with marketing Polaris (I wrote this post last night — unfortunately it looks like the story has now been deleted). Specifically, a Forbes contributor wrote about Polaris in the context of his flight between Newark and Hong Kong.

While he was excited about the amenity kit and the chocolate you get before takeoff and all that, what he really loved about the new Polaris product was the amazing new seat:

But for me, the absolute best part of that 16-hour non-stop flight to Hong Kong was the brand-new, high-tech seat.

I was able to sleep so well for several reasons, but the most obvious one is the seat. United’s new high-tech lie-flat seat was supremely comfortable. It was easy to get it to the exact right angle of “flat” for sleeping. It was easy to get into “uber-recline” mode for watching a movie. It was easy to retract down to the upright position when it was time to get the try table out. I loved that there were lots of storage cubbies and nooks to put miscellaneous stuff that you need on a long flight (book, phone, computer, etc.)

There’s only one slight problem — his flight didn’t have the new seat, but rather had a B/E Aerospace Diamond seat, which they’ve had for almost a decade. Heh.


Bottom line

United certainly took a unique approach by marketing the heck out of a product before it even launched, and then launching it before a single plane featured the product they were advertising. This has led to mixed feelings. Much to my surprise, in some cases it even leads people to believe they’re flying in a seat that they’re not in. Clearly the marketing has paid off, at least for some people!

(Tip of the hat to Brad B)

  1. It’s stupid. I just flew “Polaris” from EWR-HKG-SFO-EWR. On the international legs you get a decent amenity kit (and really idiotic drink holders for welcome drinks that FAs and everyone else hates), but that’s about it. On return redeye to EWR just a duvet, no blanket and the seats are the same tired ones.

  2. You’re talking about it. So is every other news outlet that covers travel in even the most remote way. End of topic.

  3. so your theory is that an airline can’t market something until they’re 100% installed ? in that case, you shouldn’t be discussing flat beds on AA either, cuz they still aren’t at 100% even today in 2017.

  4. I do not know anything about the seat – but the ground experience in the Chicago Polaris Lounge was stunning. A nice a la carte menu, good buffet choices, very good selektion of drinks and a comfortable day bed in a quiet room. Never been in a Business Class Lounge before that offered the mix of quality and privacy as good. I really was impressed.

  5. Lucky they haven’t had it for over a decade. The first sCO equipment operated with this seat in late 2009, barely seven years.

  6. The placebo effect is real.

    However, United is 100% guilty of over-promising/under-delivering. For the sake of argument, even if all the planes had the new seat, it still appears to be an inferior business-class product than AA and Delta are offering.

  7. Do you remember how long the B787 was hyped before a single craft was delivered? What United did/is doing to market Polaris the norm rather than exception. Marketing always precedes the actual launch in pretty much every industry!

    “Star Wars: The Final Chapter” coming to a theater near you in Summer 2020!

  8. It’s stupid. Any short term gain in goodwill will be offset by longer term frustration and dissatisfaction towards united with the misleading marketing campaign. Polaris – when fully implemented – isn’t that great, certainly not when compared to leading carriers products, hard and soft. It does represent a dramatic improvement for United (eventually), but that’s only because the existing product is so incredibly outdated and poor by comparison, particularly the legacy United metal. Rebranding the entire experience because a stinky (literally) cotton ball pillow (which I’m not aware of any other airline providing such crap) with a better grade pillow, and Saks branded blankets, does not completely redefine the product. These very minor upgrades are just that and nothing more. I’ve not seen any change in onboard service, which also could use something more than marketing hype. That said, I’ve not experienced a Polaris lounge yet so cannot comment on those improvements. If in fact ‘revolutionary’, perhaps United would have been better off calling them Polaris Lounges, and then gradually roll out the brand to the aircraft once it really WAS Polaris with the new hard and soft product, as well as hopefully improved service. Seeing Polaris on the itinerary or booking sites should mean something, and today it’s completely pointless and deceptive.

  9. ” For the sake of argument, even if all the planes had the new seat, it still appears to be an inferior business-class product than AA and Delta are offering.”

    @Pat : amnesia kicking in ? you forgot AA still flies crapo angle-lie-flat junk on TATL long hauls, even as of today ?

  10. So in 5 years, UA will be caught up with what most other foreign airlines had 5 years ago. Nice job! Of course, it’s hard to run an airline without heavy government subsidies 😉

  11. curious though, the author has a photo of his feet resting in a reverse herringbone seat.
    do you think he was in a global first seat?

  12. @morgan – No the photo is not of a reverse herringbone seat footwell in the Forbes article, it is the B/E Aerospace Diamond.

  13. DCS as usual makes a completely idiot argument in defense of UA…you couldn’t see Star Wars the moment they started advertising it. But you can fly UA Polaris. LOL.

    Anyone who has flown the better biz class seats currently out there (Super Diamond, Cirrus, Apex) knows that this Polaris seat is already weaker/inferior than them and it hasn’t even launched.

  14. “Polaris” is just like everything else in the U.S.: Marketing and messaging are more important than substance. “Black angus” is a breed and does not indicate quality. “Fresh” has no legal definition and is applied to just about everything. “President” is a meaningless honorific now.

    The only major foreign airlines that have given special names to their premium products are the ones that offer something far in excess of a normal seat: Etihad First Class Apartments and Singapore Suites. If anybody’s going to name a product after a stellar body, it should have been one of those two.

  15. A couple of things…I 100% agree with Jeff above: hyping the shit out of a sub-par product is silly. This is an improvement ONLY for UA. It’s like trading up from your 1982 Datsun to a 1992 Corolla and calling it a “win”. Seasoned travelers know good and bad hard products – this is a not-bad-but-not-leading hard product. And with the recent devaluations in award charts and such, clearly the vast majority of people that will fly Polaris with any regularity will be business travelers who have paid for it (via cash or earned upgrades/awards), *not* the casual frequent flyer who saved up enough MP miles to finally afford that flight to wherever and will think the new product is just the bee’s knees. And I’d say it’s safe to assume that most business travelers who fly in premium cabins frequently can all generally agree that this Polaris nonsense is BS: the hard product is inferior for any major international airline, the soft product has improved but is still years behind other top carriers, and there’s still a GIANT customer service gap that UA seems to have minimal desire to fill.

    Secondly, I find it comical that the Forbes article references the author, Bill Springer, as someone who “covers superyachts, offshore adventure, and luxury travel.” Riiiiiight. If you’re covering luxury travel, you are NOT impressed by Polaris and you are certainly aware of the difference between Polaris, BusinessFirst, and market-leading hard/soft products. What a joke. I’m curious if this is why they pulled the article.

  16. This is kind of like how Emirates advertises the shower suite heavily even though the vast majority of Emirates passengers won’t use it. Airlines seem to think advertising high-end products gives them something of a halo effect with all passengers. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but I will admit that United’s Polaris advertising has broken through with the public in a way that I haven’t seen any US legacy airline advertising do in quite a while.

  17. I’d be tempted to switch from Delta to United — I make a connection on most of my Delta flights, so flying to Chicago as opposed to Atlanta isn’t that big of a deal — but the ridiculously long rollout of Polaris is holding me back.

    United says it won’t even be on the majority of the fleet until 2021.

    From a P.R. standpoint, United shouldn’t have rolled out Polaris until (1) some flights had the new seats and (2) at least one lounge was fully operational with the menu service, etc.

    Maybe I’ll switch to United around 2019 or 2010, but until then, there’s just too much uncertainty as to what United seat you will receive.

  18. FYI, the original article has been removed from Forbes’s website, since it became clear that the author was lying about which seat he was in. The version you’re linking to is on Google’s mobile CDN, not the Forbes site itself. One hopes it too will eventually be removed.

  19. This might be a bit out of topic.

    Does anyone know if United rolled out Polaris for UA-850 UA-851 between Chicago and Beijing? Any links to pictures or reviews?

    I could not find any on line. Thanks,

  20. @DRAV: Good point. Club World is pretty lame, too. And I’d prob take BusinessFirst (I refuse to call it Polaris yet) over Club World, too, except BA has MUCH better lounges right now, and they’re in more places. Plus, UA seems to think they have a competitive product when it comes to pricing – both cash and awards. They don’t. Club World is still cheaper with a similar-enough hard product that, all else being equal, gives them an edge.

  21. I agree there’s a lot of confusion. I flew on a 777 BOS-SFO over the holidays and the lady next to me said it’s a polaris flight. I said “are these the new seats?” and she said no. I asked the FA if the meal was polaris and she said no, regular first. We did have saks blankets (way too hot IMO), are those a polaris thing??

    At the end of the day, it’s still a lie flat seat 🙂

  22. @Bgriff – there is, however, a difference between advertising something that exists – whether or not it’s considered of value or utilized – and advertising a product which substantially does not exist and deceiving the average customer into believing it does.. I for one LOVE the showers and use them every EK/EY flight I’m on! 🙂

  23. I was super frustrated to have been put on a “Polaris” business class seat. I was under the impression “our polaris flights would be marked polaris beginning in December 2016” and you would want to choose that as a special option with the new seats. All this to find out that everything is pretty much the same and you that still have:
    1. A Continental Airlines business class seat
    2. An ancient entertainment system.
    3. An entertainment system that does not provide music on demand.
    4. An entertainment system that keeps 1 or 2 episodes of TV shows the same from month to month. Other airlines have entire seasons of a show.
    5. An amenity kit that has the exact same things as before with limited additions and upgrades.

    The only noted positive improvement is the staff. In general, I have felt treated better by onboard staff over the past few months.

  24. I’d say no because from the advertising launch back in summer 2016, I thought (in my mind at least) that United made it clear that the new Polaris seats were coming first to their 77W’s, THEN make its way through the existing fleet at which time if there was once a Polaris First Cabin, those would be removed when the new Polaris Business seats were installed – it was all in the Q&A or explained in depth on the Polaris Website.

    I do wish the lounge refurbishments would move along more quickly as this is one advantage Polaris has over other business/first class international products – a dedicated Polaris lounge. I also hope UA gives their customers an idea of what the roll out schedule will be for installing the new Polaris seat in their existing fleet; it should not take five years from this year, should it (five years referencing the exclusivity of this new seat to UA for this time)?

  25. Was that photo featured in the original article? The photo of the seat shown was taken on the 787. Notice the window control and the seat position controls, both unique to that plane. UA has never operated a 787 from EWR-HKG. The plane used on that route is a 777.

  26. I took the so called Polaris to Japan. It’s the same.old United deal and as a 1k I would.no.longer recommend United. My.prior flight to Peru in 1st they served me a glass with a big chip that cut my finger open…lucky my wife was there to help. Took 7 stiches at.$2300. Usd and not even an.apologie or offer to pay.my medical from United when.I.write a.letter. As a retired Navy Vet and former Commercial Officer at the.US embassy in kabul, I.no longer recommend United. DR. ROBERT ADAMS

  27. Just flew United’s new 777-300ER (pilot called it a “stretch”)from EWR to SFO outbound in coach, inbound in Polaris “business first” (that’s really a “stretch”).
    Coach nothing to write home about and the headrests are oddly misplaced although the exit row seats are the ones to pick thats rows 24 and 39. Nice IFE though. Polaris lounge in SFO is still a Club Lounge and under construction and a mess. They don’t even allow day passes its so cramped in there nowadays. Polaris new business class product reminds me a lot of ANA biz class. Definately get the bulkhead seats if you want extra footwell space that’s Rows 1 and 9. Amenity kit and menu is still transcon “premium service” ones. Seat is firm and definitely needs a mattress pad for sleeping. Seats D and G are great for couples or business pals. Seat controls are very intuitive and fall nicely to hand. Marble table tops seems unnecessary weight. Overall not a bad product although feels a little coffin like especially the footwells. Need to try on a longer flight though. Would post 10 pics ala Lucky but no where to do it. Hope this helps.

  28. I just finished a Polaris flight from Beijing to Washington Dulles. I was rather disappointed. The seats had not been upgraded. Only half of them had aisle access, not the 100% promised, The duvet blanket was nice but nothing to make me consider this a new experience. I was disappointed with the steak meal. It was a bacon wrap piece of beef that I can buy at Walmart for $4 for two pieces and they only served one piece so it’s worth $2. Walmart has a similar bacon wrapped filet mignon that costs $6 for 2. That one is very nice but Polaris wasn’t willing to spend the extra dollar I guess. To make matters worse, the coach section was practically empty so everyone in the back saw able to stretch across three seats and get a good sleep.

  29. I just wrapped up a flight from San Fran to Shanghai and back in the new Polaris as they call it on the advertisement and tickets, again just the same old product with a new new name. Branded bedding from Saks Fifth Ave is cheap and worse then the stuff they had before. United seats and lay out at are the same with no changes, food is even worse and cheaper now then years ago. United should be sued for false advertising and made to refund all sales, the CEO should be in jail for allowing such to happen on his command. As a former US Diplomat and Commercial Officer in Afghanistan, I have seen CEOs go to jail for far less

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