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May 16, 2013

Last week on an upgraded flight between Denver and Orlando, I was given a warm cookie after the meal service. This is a nice touch United Airlines does and has done for first class passengers for years.

But as I examined the little brown paper sack the cookie came in, I was amused by the sentence printed on the bag: Made fresh, especially for you.

Something about that woke up the stand-up comic that resides deep within me as I began to imagine how Jerry Seinfeld might relate this story on stage.

Which company messaging do you take seriously?

“I’m sure the flight attendant saw me board and immediately called to the gate attendant, ‘Better bring me down a cup of sugar, a cup of flour, and a few eggs. I gotta do something really special for the guy in 4B!”

Cookies.002Unless there was a full kitchen installed in the galley of this particular Boeing 757, I highly doubt the cookie was made fresh. And unless the 23 other first class passengers on the flight weren’t also offered one, that cookie wasn’t especially for me.

It’s just advertising hyperbole, right? C’mon, Chester! No one takes that stuff seriously.

However, when you consider that what’s imprinted on this sack is only one of many messages that United tries to convey to its customers, one has to wonder which are to be believed and which aren’t.

Some, like the one on the cookie sack, are to be taken with a grain of salt. Conversely, those printed on the safety instruction card inserted into the seat back in front of each passenger are to be taken very seriously.

Between those two extremes are hundreds of other messages that United, and every other business, needs to communicate to both its external – and its internal – customers.

Where do you draw the line?

United’s cookie sack message wasn’t intended as slapstick comedy. Instead, the brain trusts in their marketing department thought this imprint would resonate with their passengers reassuring them that the airline pulls out all stops to make their special customers feel special. (As a 2 million mile flyer on United, I can say with certainty that this is far from reality.)

This begs the question — how do employees process the marketing messages their company communicates to the general public?

A few years ago, one of my clients (a large quick-service restaurant chain) asked me to help them upgrade the work ethic across their front lines. They wanted strategies to improve loyalty, honesty, reliability, and service from their hourly associates. In a conference call with C-level leaders, I heard them reference Chick-fil-A several times as the standard they were aiming for.

Chick-Fil-A is an organization heavily rooted in shared values and, as a result, their customer service is legendary. Far from stodgy, however, their hysterical use of jersey cows pleading with you to “Eat Mor Chikin!” is the centerpiece of their highly effective advertising campaign.

Conversely, the brand I was working with uses scantily-clad women in provocative poses to gain the attention of their targeted consumer (18-35 year-old men).

The messaging between these two highly visible brands is as far apart as the service you typically receive at each.

Transparency happens and congruity rules

Whatever you may choose to believe about Millennials, there is one value they all hold sacred: congruity.

They’re very accepting of you and/or your brand as long as you don’t try to wear two faces. You’d better be congruent, because in this age of social media, you are transparent in all forms of communication whether or not that is your intent.

That means you cannot represent your brand one way to your customers and a different way to your employees. Want to be seen as hip, cool, and trendy? Employees are going to want to dress, act, and perform accordingly. Want to be esteemed by the public as having traditional old-school values? Better rethink company happy hours and casual Fridays.

Your internal messages are going to be shared externally and your external messaging is going to be applied internally.

It this gives you an uneasy feeling, it’s time to circle the wagons and get your marketing department and HR department on the same page.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit

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