Boeing And The Loss Of Its Brand-Business Trustworthiness

In 1957 there was a TV show called Who Do You Trust?. The host was Johnny Carson, pre-Tonight show icon. Who Do You Trust? was probably the last time that trust was considered comedic.

Trust is now a serious component of brand-business management. Trust it one of those elements that a brand-business needs in order to generate high quality revenue growth. For today’s brand-businesses, Trust is a Must.

For a while, X (formerly Twitter) was in the running to be our least trusted brand. After all, its Trust and Safety department was disbanded before it was decided to try to revive it again. Recent Congressional hearings might have changed X’s position. The least-trustworthy onus seems to have shifted to Meta.  Reports indicate that Meta knew of child safety and did nothing. Of course, this has not stopped Meta’s user longevity and growth.

However, in its continuing downward spiral into the trust dustbin, Boeing has probably reclaimed the “least trustworthy brand-business” mantle that it acquired in 2018 and 2019 with the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max planes. 

There are multiple issues in Boeing’s saga of sagging trustworthiness, such as hundreds of deaths – and near deaths – associated with Boeing products. A Bloomberg BusinessWeek report from January 2024 details the problems plaguing Boeing. These problems range from “… sourcing, assembly and quality control protocols.” There is also the shift from Boeing’s “engineering-first, pilot-focused, safety-centric” ethos to the financial-engineering-shenanigans focus that affected the brand-business and determined its move away from Renton, Washington (where its factories sit) to Chicago, Illinois. That was also several CEO’s ago.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek stated, “Over the years, Boeing turned to leaders out of the mold of legendary General Electric Co. CEO Jack Welch, and the financial targets and metrics this crop of executives put in place tore away many of Boeing’s traditional practices. Current CEO, (Dave) Calhoun previously worked at GE, before spending half a decade at investment firm Blackstone Inc.” One industry leader told Bloomberg that Boeing “lost its DNA,” when the brand-business “…went to the mode of optimizing financially.” 

This recent macro loss of trust is because of the recent Alaska Airlines door blowout. And, because of revelations regarding safety lapses along with perhaps less than genuine mea culpas by those in executive positions. Also, reports indicate that however sincere the Board of Directors, there appears to be a disconnect between the boardroom and the manufacturing floor. Further, Boeing seemingly prefers the GE financial focus with no brand-business focus. 

But, there is more.

Two professors from Yale addressed Boeing’s trustworthiness in their article, How Boeing Can Restore Trust, (Fortune, January 2024). After pointing out the safety issues and the unsavory relationship with Boeing’s supplier Spirit AeroSystems, the authors focus on public trust. 

The authors believe that Boeing’s CEO will find it increasingly difficult to control the narrative while the FAA ramps up its investigation and oversight. Additionally, and this is key, Boeing will need to focus on “fortifying public trust” which will require a strategic shift away from the short-term financial interests of investors and analysts. Boeing will need to publicly shoulder accountability rather than “hiding behind bureaucratic processes of delegating bad news to subordinates.” (Boeing recently said it was overhauling its quality control processes.) Analysts indicate that Boeing must be very careful when focusing on financial engineering while “maintaining a public discussion around safety.”

Having the executive in charge of the 737 Max factory resign may be just shuffling the deck chairs. Creating a new position overseeing quality control at Boeing’s commercial airplanes unit reinforces the unfortunate surprise that this position did not already exist. Boeing is now saying that leadership changes (a reorganization) will contribute to Boeing’s “enhanced focus on ensuring that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements. Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less.”

Boeing must start now to resuscitate trust.

Trust takes time to build but can disappear overnight. Trust cannot be bought. Trust must be earned.  Even though we live in an instant culture, trust cannot be earned instantly.  Trust accumulates; slowly, very slowly.  Trust is durable and it is also fragile.  Trust is lasting but when damaged, the bond can break quickly.  

There are actions that brand-businesses must take in order to restore, grow, nurture and maintain trust. Deloitte, the global services group, articulated four in a recent article on Trust. However, Deloitte’s four actions are more appropriate for managing trust that is already established. 

But, what does a brand-business such as Boeing do to regain, build and manage trust? Here are six actions for immediate implementation.

1. Demonstrate Don’t Remonstrate

Trust must be demonstrated, before it can be claimed. To deserve trust, demonstrate trust.  To be trusted, a brand-business must first be worthy of trust. 

Saying, “trust me” does not track today.  “Trust me” went out with Richard Nixon’s “Trust me, I’m not a crook” speech. Trust is the growing conviction that a brand will live up to expectations.  Do not over promise.  Promise what you can deliver; deliver what you promise.  Live up to expectations consistently.  Create a positive pattern of predictable behavior.

According to the Yale professors, Boeing could demonstrate trust by “changing governance and internal quality control processes.” Making these changes would demonstrate the importance of safety within the organization. Boeing should immediately fix its supply chain which includes Spirit AeroSystems. (NB: As of this writing, Boeing is “in talks” to re-purchase Spirit AeroSystems. However, Spirit AeroSystems’ quality control and internal quality mind-set are in serious disrepair. Boeing also appears to have a broken quality mind-set. The talk of buying back Spirit AeroSystems may exacerbate Boeing’s work on quality control and mindset.)

2. Lead The Debate, Do Not Hide From It

Do not stay silent as Boeing did in 2018 and 2019. Silence means agreement. But, do not be defensive. If Boeing wishes to be taken seriously, being defensive is the wrong approach. When you are silent or when you hide, it allows others to create the truths about you. It allows others to recast your profile.  It is not in your best interests to let outside trustbusters trample on your brand truths.

Trust leadership is more than just standing out.  Trust leadership requires speaking out.  A brand-business must speak up for itself if it wants to stand out as a beacon of trust. Apologizing is nice. But, too much apologizing tends to crush credibility.

Staying silent cedes control of events to the media, losing the leadership position. Silence puts brand-businesses in the position of having to reply, respond, react to the claims of others. Leaders must take the lead. With the proliferation of media channels all vying to capture our attention, it is imperative to take command and take a stand. The Yale professors already see a loss of the narrative to the media and the public and the government. Is the 737 Max brand a damaged brand? Yes. To rebuild trust, one thing is certain, silence is not an option. 

However, speaking without thinking is inadvisable as well. Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, CEO Calhoun responded to a question regarding Boeing’s financial engineering that spun off Spirit AeroSystems (outsourcing Boeing’s quality). Mr. Calhoun said, “Did it go too far? Yeah, it probably did. But, now it’s here-and-now. And, now, I’ve got to fix it.” Rather sobering statement when you think about the fact that fixing the problems are why Mr. Calhoun gets paid the big bucks. When Spirit AeroSystems’ pieces arrive at Boeing, there are quality problems that Boeing engineers allow to pass through the production line.

3. Openness Is An Opportunity

The Yale article quotes Justice Louis Brandeis who said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Transparency is key. One trust study stated that, “without openness, trust is blind.”

Transparency requires truth.  But, do not confuse truth and trust.  Truth is a fact. Trust is a feeling.  Brand-businesses need both truth and trust in order to build trustworthiness.  People trust their eyes more than their ears.  So, to be worthy of trust, people need to see the truth, not just read about it. Relying on the facts is only part of the story. Restoring faith is the other part. Mr. Calhoun’s statements can be construed as amorphous. 

4. The CEO Must Be The CTO, Chief Trust Officer.

The CEO cannot delegate the leadership necessary for building trustworthiness. It is a CEO responsibility. The CEO is the Chief Trust Officer. Chief Trust Officer is a fundamental, ongoing, leadership responsibility. Trust building begins at the top.

The role of Chief Trust Officer is more than a title. CTO is an indispensable role. Trust building is a task of major cultural and financial significance inside and outside the organization. Studies show that increased trust is a critical factor leading to increased preference and loyalty, generating high quality revenue growth. CEO Calhoun’s reply, “Yeah. And now I have to fix it,” sends a message of a reluctance to take accountability for a problem caused by a predecessor.

5. Build Leadership, Credibility, Integrity and Responsibility

Leadership must be demonstrated, not merely claimed. The brand-business must be a thought leader. Is your brand-business perceived to be innovative? And, are you growing in size? 

Credibility means statements and actions are plausible. Be dependable. Be capable, competent and an expert. Provide superior complaint resolution. Be a trustworthy source of information. 

Integrity means having customers’ interests at heart. Refrain from taking unfair advantage. Be accountable for actions. Behave ethically. 

Responsibility provides competitive advantage. Demonstrate good global corporate citizenship. Corporate Social Responsibility is not a separate division within the organization. It is a way of doing business. Some companies are making it a core of their operations. Safety is a responsibility.

6. Create A Trust Agenda

Produce the right results by doing the right things in the right way.  In order to generate trustworthiness, every CEO must have a corporate strategic platform based on a Trust Agenda. Trust Agendas address issues such as: 

  • How will we build trust across our geographies, our brands, our people, our shareholders, our franchisees, our partners, our suppliers and our local communities? 
  • How do we embed trustworthiness into all functions of the organization?
  • How will we build trust chains throughout all of our relationships, internal and external? 
  • How will we manage for the long-term and the short-term? Brand-building and trust-building are long-term and ongoing.
  • How will we integrate corporate responsibility into all of our decision-making? 
  • Are we a positive corporate citizen? 
  • How sustainable are our actions? A Trust Agenda will ensure that a sustainability opportunity is on the front burner. This means meeting the needs of customers, communities and businesses without compromising the needs of future generations. 

Having a Trust Agenda allows an organization to be a steady force for good while not standing still. But, the Trust Agenda must be implemented.

At the moment, Boeing is in a purgatory of its own making. Not only is its quality in question, Boeing is “responsible for some of the worst aircraft safety and design failures in recent aviation history,” according to Bloomberg. Boeing agreed to avoid prosecution and anted up $2.5 billion to the Department of Justice. And, now, Boeing is under investigation by the FAA, with congressional scrutiny as well as painful media coverage. A group of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 passengers are suing Boeing for $1 billion.

The FAA’s recent report (February 26, 2024), is terrifying. The report states that there is a disconnect between senior management and others at Boeing relative to safety. Fifty-three (53) recommendations are provided. According to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, Boeing is “falling short” when it comes to human factors in engineering such as focusing on how pilots interact with the equipment and including pilot input in design or other high level decisions. The New York Times also wrote that the FAA panel responsible for the report found that Boeing’s response has been, “…inadequate and confusing in the way in which it has administered its safety culture.”

Mr. Calhoun’s response to the FAA panel’s report is bewildering. There is clearly a crisis at Boeing. That crisis is trouncing trust. The New York Times quotes Mr. Calhoun, “We will go slow; we will not rush the system, and we will take our time to do it right.” When doors are falling off and planes have crashed, it seems that slow and steady might not be the best strategy. 

Do not forget Boeing’s airline-buying customers, either. The Portland’s Oregonian wrote, “The CEOs of Alaska Airlines and United Airlines — the two U.S. carriers affected by the Max 9 grounding — expressed outrage and frustration with the company. Asking what Boeing intends to do about improving the quality of its manufacturing, CEO Calhoun said, “We caused the problem and we understand that. We understand why they are angry and we will work to earn their confidence.’”

Boeing has another constituency: defense. As aerospace management consultant and analyst Richard Aboulafia said on Bloomberg’s podcast Odd Lots, “There has been a shocking absence of talk about the safety of Boeing’s defense products.” Mr. Aboulafia wondered out loud on the podcast why the government or hedge funds or someone or some organization has not said something about defense safety.

Quality and safety come first. But, at the same time, Boeing needs to get on the trust train before it is too late. Building trust takes time. But, without trust, there will be no customer-perceived value. And, without customer-perceived value, there is no brand-business value. And, with no brand-business value, a sale of Boeing or its parts or a spin-off will probably not attract great sums of cash for those involved in the selling or spinning.