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Social media lessons: United Airlines breaks guitars

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"United breaks guitars" is the most powerful example yet about how social media empowers consumers and tarnishes images of big companies. In spring, 2...

"United breaks guitars" is the most powerful example yet about how social media empowers consumers and tarnishes images of big companies. In spring, 2008,  Dave Carroll of the Sons of Maxwell band claims United Airlines broke his $3,500 Taylor guitar on a flight stop-over in Chicago while traveling from Halifax to Nebraska.

Dave Carroll has reason to smile. credit: Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

For a year, he tried unsuccessfully to get reimbursed. When United did not treat him well, he got even! No, he got revenge and then some. He wrote a song United Breaks Guitars and produced a Youtube video that in the past week or so has garnered 3,143,801views and 15,343 comments mostly in praise of this David's attempt to slay the United Goliath. He promises three songs and song 2 is already done.

The song is catchy and the video mimics baggage handlers thrashing luggage around. I searched United Breaks Guitars at United.com and this is what came back:

Did you mean: United breaks gets? United breaks stars? United breaks liters? United breaks guests? United breaks girls?

Nope, I meant United breaks guitars. Nothing came back searching Dave or David Carroll, either. But the soft-spoken and clearly-determined Canadian in a second video says United has since offered to compensate him and urges the airline to give the money to charity. Now, United has a PR nightmare of its own making and Dave Carroll is a rock star. Taylor Guitars jumped all over it, too.

"If you spend millions on advertising your brand and someone spend five cents on a Youtube video, you've just wasted a lot of advertising dollars. There’s a consensus around the frustration customers feel with companies that act like monolithic monsters," says Dr. Natalie Petouhoff,  a Forrester Research analyst covering customer experience/service and social media. "Social media is here to stay and has a lot of power."

Search "bad customer experiences" on Twitter Tweetdeck and be prepared for profanity. Call it the customer's revenge. Here's one mild tweet on United Airlines at this moment:

"United airlines is the worst airline. I can not believe this day. Sorry but my Christian attitude is suffering today." says @meglish001. I don't mean to pick on United because I've had many good experiences flying it, but I've had a few bad ones, too and darnit, I can't get the "United Breaks Guitars" song out of my head.

"Now we have this giant megaphone called Web 2.0 saying how horrible your company is," says Petouhoff.

That's not to say companies can't turn the tables and use tools like Twitter to change how customers think about them. Many are. United just isn't quite there yet. In its own twitter account, it talks to more 17,000, but listens to just over 1,000. Given that so many identify with and like Carroll's video should send a loud message to United and everyone else.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure