Social Media and the United Breaks Guitars Video – A Cautionary Tale for ALL marketers

With more than 5.3 million people having already watched it, Dave Carroll’s  “United Breaks Guitars” video has become an internet social media phenomenon.  I first saw the video posted on Facebook by a friend.

For the last year I’ve been saying — screaming actually — that companies better have their acts together, otherwise they’re sitting ducks in this new age of customer centricity. If your customer service, products and brand image aren’t all buttoned up, you risk getting skewered on the internet, i.e., the people’s media.

The video I’m referring to is really amazing to see. Here’s the story behind it: United Airline’s baggage handlers break a passenger’s guitar, and the next thing you know 5.3 million people hear about it in a catchy, four-minute ditty on YouTube. Viralocity at its finest (and scariest).

The song has gone so mainstream that you can now buy it on iTunes. For just 99 cents, you too can help spread negative publicity about an airline. I hate to admit it, but I actually feel sorry for United. Well, to a point anyway.

As a marketer and consultant, I’ve seen every variation of apathetic customer service and crappy products sold by spin and hype alone. As a 30-year student of marketing and advertising — and, of course, firsthand experience — I’ve witnessed brands whose positionings were so far divergent from their actual customer experiences that you have to wonder what the C-level execs were thinking when they were sold hook, line and sinker on some overzealous, over-researched agencies’ campaigns. I can just hear it now: “Well, our market research says that if you … ”

But none of that scares me more than the internet and social media, and their power to kill your brand dead with a song, tweet, Facebook status update, blog post, thumbs down, etc.

You should be terrified, too. If you’re reading this column, let it be a call to action for you. Let my words galvanize you into looking into how your customers and prospects experience  — I’ll say it again — your customer service, products and brand image. I know I sound preachy, but how would you like a song written and gone viral about your company?

I strongly urge you to get together with your key staff members to pick apart every one of your company’s touchpoints to ensure every contact in every touchpoint is handled in a pristine manner.

To close out my sermon for the week, I want to leave you with a personal recollection from my early days in direct marketing. In the ’80s I was selling direct marketing media, and to hone my craft I read a book called “How to Sell Anything to Anybody,” written by a car salesman named Joe Girard. Girard had this rule, the rule of 250, which basically stated that any person you come into contact with knew and could influence 250 other people — positively or negatively. That one rule both terrified and inspired me. Here it is expressed mathematically: 1:250.

Thanks to social media, Joe’s rule has expanded just a little, I’d say. Take the United Airlines case, for instance, and do the math. It’s 1:5,322,806.

Oh, and by the way, check out the sequel to “United Breaks Guitars” here. It takes square aim at United’s policies and people who refused to pay for the guitar to be fixed. It’s already climbing the charts.

9 thoughts on “Social Media and the United Breaks Guitars Video – A Cautionary Tale for ALL marketers

  1. Cindy says:

    Nice blog!

    What amazed me was the speed of this.

    I’m a part-time professional musician. I was sent the link from another local musician friend, who is a direct friend of the singer. When I first got the link, there were roughly 700 hits.

    Several days later, it had been sent to me from numerous sources, and there were hundreds of thousands of hits.

    I think there were three factors in this that made it a particularly virulent and speedy “infection.”

    First, the damaged instrument was one with a particularly good reputation – Taylor.

    Second, the hurt party came from a population with a big electronic reach.

    Third, the evil-doer was already disliked by an even wider population.

    This is bad, bad news!

    To expand on this:

    The woman who sent me the original link lives, as do I, in the
    San Diego area – home of Taylor Guitars. The damaged guitar was, of course, a Taylor. Many of my friends play Taylors (including my duo partner, who has 5 or 6) no doubt at a much higher percentage than in other cities.

    Taylor Guitars has a history of being incredibly wonderful to its musicians. Taylor artists are particularly fervent – reverent, in fact – in their support of the brand, and of Bob Taylor personally.

    And fervent musicians have big email lists. We announce our upcoming gigs that way. I have hundreds of names on my email list – I believe the woman who sent it to me probably has 5 or 6 times as many. As your influence factor points out, it takes no more effort to tell 3 than 300….or 1500….or…..

    So, the hurt and offended population was not only personally-invested in the damage, but also technologically-saavy.

    Finally, Most of us already have hostile feelings about – the airline industry, causing involvement with a much bigger population of the righteously-indignant than even poor musicians..!

    We used to say that people with good reviews tell 3-5 people, but people with bad reviews tell 19-20. Your statistics show the danger of reputational carelessness even more vividly, with this amazingly fast and dramatic viral hit.


  2. Andy Buck says:

    Here’s a great example of not understanding your audience and how a fairly innocent and well-intended message can go completely awry.’s note: this can be a bit off color. Don’t click the link if you are offended by sexual content no matter how relavent the comment is)

  3. greg gazin says:

    I’ve been following the United Breaks Guitars situation from the beginning. It’s sad that UAL couldn’t nip it in the bud before it got to this point.

    What concerns me are the other who raise a stink simply because he/she not happy with what a company did, but the company was not at fault or really went out of their way to help – but nothing would make this person happy.

    Case and point many years ago I had a retial computer store. We sold computers and parts. Once after the third time a motherboard came back “defective” we said no to the customer. There were burn marks on the board. It was determined that twice he plugged the parts in the wrong way, another time a screw came loose while the computer was running. As good will, we gave him the benefit twice.

    We could not return the parts so we ate it both times (we were a small business) but the last time we had to say no. How far can we go and still stay viable?

    If that happened today imagine what damage it could do to a company when they really went out of their way to do the right thing, but then suffered unjustifiably?

  4. CaroleJesse says:

    Along the same lines as the United Breaks Guitars, although not as flashy, is the recent very public dispute between Heather B Armstrong (Twitter @dooce) and Maytag (Twitter @WhirlpoolCorp), again over a bad customer service experience. @dooce has over 1.2 million followers on Twitter, and gets routinely re-tweeted. She also has a blog read by millions of stay at home Mom’s (gate keepers of purchase power). see this recent battle at

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