‘United Breaks Guitars’ musician now a social media rock star

Usually airplane passengers are relieved when a flight lands, but when Dave Carroll overhead someone exclaim “My God, they’re throwing guitars out there,” at the end of his United Airlines flight from Halifax to Chicago, his heart sank.

He craned his neck and look out the window to see baggage handlers heaving a band mate’s bass guitar onto the tarmac. His $3,500 710 Taylor guitar, he’d discover later, had already been similarly tossed and the base smashed as a result. That moment and the resulting labyrinthine bureaucratic nightmare that the Halifax native endured when trying to get compensation inspired “United Breaks Guitars,” a song backed by a YouTube video that’s now collected more than 10 million hits. Posted July 6, 2009, the video was followed by two sequels with about 1.5 million views, combined.


Dave Carroll’s latest video in his series on United Airlines.

That sort of popularity was never in mind when the first song was uploaded, Carroll says in a phone interview from Austin, Texas where he is attending the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

“My goal was to stop being angry as a customer,” he says. “I declared to United that my goal was to get one million hits with all three videos combined.”

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Beyond its success as a viral video, “United Breaks Guitars” has become emblematic of how important social media can be in controlling a business brand’s image. It illustrated the new power relationship that exists when every customer has mass publishing tools at their finger tips. Given enough motivation, one customer could make the post that either makes you or breaks a reputation.   

Carroll has become a social media poster boy, travelling the conference circuit and talking about why big companies don’t need to fear the crowd taking to channels like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Instead, they can engage customers there and win positive sentiment for their brands – much as Carroll has done for his own brand, and that of his band, the Sons of Maxwell.

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Companies have matured a lot since Carroll’s song made waves, says David Vap, chief solutions officer at RightNow Technologies Inc. The Bozeman, Mont.-based customer experience management firm creates software to help big companies monitor their brands on social media channels.

“Dave Carroll was early on in this and United was clearly caught off guard,” he says. “You can’t stop these crises from happening, but you can keep them from escalating and going out of control.”

RightNow client iRobot Corp. learned this the hard way when one of its customer relations representatives incorrectly instructed a customer that the best way to dispose of his old and broken Scooba floor cleaner was to throw it in the trash. It turned out the son of that client was a blogger at Treehugger.com, and took exception to the unsustainable approach.

“You can only imagine that post, right,” Vap says.

Within 24 hours, iRobot responded to the blog post by saying the representative’s advice did not reflect company policy. It pledged to retrain its call centre reps that week, as well as take many of the suggestions the blog put forward to reduce e-waste resulting from its defunct cleaning robots. That response was later reflected on the blog post, containing a bad situation that potentially could have become worse.

“It’s great to see that learning happening,” Vap says.

United didn’t contain the damage caused by Carroll’s song. It was reported that its stock price dipped a full 10 per cent after the incident, and The Economist estimated it lost $180 million as a result of the snafu. Carroll doubts his one song was responsible for that amount of economic impact, but says the example put forward was meaningful. Carroll turned down United’s eventual offer of compensation made seven months after he informed them of his intent to make a trilogy of YouTube videos.

“On the surface it just sounded like I was a disaffected customer. But it really has changed the world in meaningful ways in terms of social media,” he says. “Big companies often have this knee jerk reaction to be fearful on the customer now. But they shouldn’t be afraid, they should see it as an opportunity.”

Taylor Guitars recognized the opportunity in being named in Carroll’s viral hit. The company used social media to educate its customers about how to travel safely with guitars. At the same time, it was an opportunity to share details on how Taylor Guitars are made. As a result, the company enjoyed sales 25 per cent above its previous best year ever, Carroll says.

Carroll’s own musical career received a bump from the incident. His online sales went up, and he received a lot of fan mail saying that “United Breaks Guitars” had turned newcomers onto his music.

But the video has also helped Carroll launch a second-string career as a social media celebrity of sorts. Carroll was honoured as “Man of the Year” by The Consumers’ Choice Award Dec. 1, 2010 and recently shared the stage with Gene Simmons from KISS at a brand marketing conference in Moncton, N.B.

“If you’d ever told me I was going to be opening for Gene Simmons, I would have said you were crazy,” Carroll says. “If you’d told me it would be for a branding conference, I would have said you were crazier.”

Companies wanting to be more like Taylor Guitars and less like United Airlines can follow five steps to prepare for a social media crisis, advises Vap.

  1. Assess your organization’s capabilities: Each company is different. Some are more naturally inclined towards social media while others are not. Figure out where yours is on the map and what sort of level of involvement makes sense.
  2. Create a social mindset: Mature the organization’s attitude towards social media by creating some policies and figuring out who the right person is to officially respond will be.
  3. Understand your customers: Engage with your own brand in different venues. Figure out what prominent social media channels your customers are using to have conversations related to your brand.
  4. Put together a social crisis team: Don’t wait until the crisis hits to do this. Have a team ready and an online collaboration plan that will allow real-time communication when an incident occurs.
  5. Determine how to communicate your plan to your organization: Figure out what your employees’ roles will be in identifying potential social media crises.

For Carroll, the success of his “United Breaks Guitars” song continues to this day. He’s writing a book about his experiences since the incident and is ingrained in popular culture to the point that he was even referenced in a Jeopardy! question.

“A lot of viral content is really crappy. The audio is bad, and there’s no concern for what the end user is watching,” Carroll says. “I succeeded in creating a well-written song that people respond to on an emotional level.”

United Airlines now using his video for employee training purposes, he adds. But the airline hadn’t paid a licence fee for that until Whoopi Goldberg asked Carroll if they had on talk show The View.

Now the company tells Carroll it will pay him a fee, lest he be inspired to write a sequel song, “United Breaks Copyright.”

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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