Want deeper insight into customer loyalty? Go see “Up in the Air”.


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Sometimes you can find truth in the most unexpected places.

I rented the 2009 movie “Up in The Air” this weekend, not really knowing what to expect from this George Clooney vehicle. It’s billed as a drama, a romance and a comedy, but I think you can add tragedy and didactic to that.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie.

If not, here’s a brief synopsis. Ryan Bingham (Clooney) works for an Omaha based corporation whose team travels the country firing people when bosses are too timid to do it themselves. Bingham lives out of his suitcase, flying from contract to contract 320 days of the year. He loves his uncluttered life in the air.

He is unmarried, has no children and no permanent place to call home. He is estranged from his family. He is disconnected from people and place. He does, however, have one shining goal – to be only the seventh person to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles. As a sideline he gives occasional motivational speeches on how to become liberated from physical and emotional burdens. This man practises what he preaches.

Bingham’s company hires Natalie Keener, a young graduate, who recommends that the company does its work remotely over the web using video-conferencing technology. Bingham objects, so company boss, Craig Gregory, suggests that Keener accompany Bingham on a business trip to learn the business and experience firing people face-to-face first hand.

On this trip, Bingham meets a woman called Alex Goran. They find they are very alike – “think of me as you with a vagina,” says Goran – and pretty soon Bingham’s assumptions and life and relationships are under examination and review.

So, what has this got to do with loyalty?

Early in the movie, Bingham’s conception of loyalty is based on the frequent flyer analogy. The more miles you rack up the more loyal you are. Not only that, but loyalty pays off! The rewards from loyalty are significant – at 10 million miles Bingham would get to enjoy lifetime executive status, meet with the chief pilot, and have his name painted on the fuselage of one aircraft. Goran agrees. “I get it. It sounds cool,” she enthuses. They begin an affair.

As the movie proceeds, these certainties are undermined, partly by Keener’s naïve questioning of Bingham’s values, and partly by the emotional attachment he slowly begins to develop for Goran. He begins to rebuild relationships with his family, inviting Goran to be his partner at his sister’s wedding. But he and Goran eventually decide to part company, each paradoxically committed to their commitment-free life-in-the-air.

Cut now to one of Bingham’s occasional motivational speeches. These are cookie-cutter speeches that he can reel off with barely a thought. We’ve heard the speech before so we know he’s about to say: “Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life – all those negotiations, and arguments and secrets; the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living.” But before the words leave his mouth, he has a moment of rare insight, apologises ti his audience, flees the auditorium, hops on a plane and goes to see Goran.

This is the key scene in the movie. He rings the house bell and waits. Goran answers the door, children are running around in the background and a male voice asks, “Who’s that?” Goran hesitates a moment before answering “Just someone who is lost”. Bingham is stunned, confused. What is he to do? He can’t have Goran – she’s married – and he’s learned the futility of life in the air. He is truly lost.

Thus, at this point in the movie, Bingham is beginning to experience a second conception of loyalty. Loyalty now is about emotional attachment, affection, empathy, caring, duty and responsibility. It’s not about rewards. It’s about love.

There’s an important lesson here for marketers and others charged with growing customer loyalty. If you want customer loyalty you’ve got to engage the emotions. Rational rewards aren’t enough. Bingham finds that out for himself, when, on a plane right after the door-step drama, he hears his name announced as the airline’s newest 10 million mile customer. The chief pilot appears, and, instead of feeling elated, Bingham is simply bemused and disinterested. He’s lost what he wanted and gained something he no longer valued.

P.S. It’s a good movie. You should get a copy for your training department. Have you got any movie recommendations that have that extra dimension that adds value for audiences like us?

Francis Buttle
Dr. Francis Buttle founded the consultancy that bears his name back in 1979. He has over 40 years of international experience in consulting, training, researching, educating, and writing about a broad range of marketing and customer management matters. He is author of 15 books, has been a full professor of Marketing, Customer Relationship Management, Relationship Marketing, and Management.


  1. Francis – Great post! Emotion is the big driver for everyone (though we don’t like to admit it.) Just think of a time when you walked into a store that was clearly for someone with very different tastes than yours. EWWW! Your emotions tell you to get out fast – long before you have an opportunity to rationally and logically evaluate the merchandise. Marketing MUST establish an emotional connection FAST to allow the conversation to begin. That’s why one picture is worth a thousand words!

  2. I think that any movie which highlights the important of diversity would also be great for company audiences. Even the comedies such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding would fit this bill since so many diverse cultures relate to it.

  3. ironic empty twist in the tail eh!
    it seems to me the loyalty to brands movie theme ignores human feelings, battling on regardless according to the business diktat in this movie as in life


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