Broken Guitar Has United Playing the Blues to the Tune of $180 Million

When the airlines smashed a songwriter’s guitar and refused to reimburse him, he got even by going viral.

Broken Guitar Has United Playing the Blues to the Tune of $180 Million

Singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s United flight had just
landed when he heard a passenger behind him exclaim, “My god they’re throwing
guitars out there.” Members of his band, Sons of Maxwell, looked out in time to
see their guitars being tossed by baggage handlers. When Carroll later
confirmed that his beloved guitar was a casualty in the melee, it wasn’t just
his $3,500 Taylor guitar that was broken. His heart was broken, too. He was
able to have the guitar repaired for $1,200, but it will never be quite the
same. “It plays well but has lost much of what made it special,” says Carroll.


When nine months of calls and emails failed to net Carroll compensation
for the $1,200 of damage to his guitar, he took matters into his very talented hands
and wrote “United Breaks Guitars.” Carroll posted the incredibly creative and hilarious
music video on YouTube, where the infectious tune promptly went viral.

According to the Times
of London
, “…within four days of the song
going online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’
stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10%,
costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have bought
Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.”


Can United’s 180 million dollar loss be chalked up entirely
to a song on YouTube? Probably not. Did the song have a very real and very
negative effect on United’s brand equity? Absolutely.

What can you learn from this great David versus Goliath
story that will help your business? Know
this: Consumers will talk. And with the
power of social media, their voice is louder than ever before. You can’t stop
the chatter, but you can have some control over whether they’re saying
good things or bad things. Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quickly
right wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control. Carroll
gave United every chance. When, after nine months of calls and emails, United finally
shut the door on his communications, he wrote them one last time, telling them
of his plan to write three songs, video them, and post them on YouTube. His
hope was to get a million views over the course of a year. His first song
passed by the 1.5 million mark within four days of posting. It’s now been
viewed more than 4.3 million times and is still spreading. After the video went
viral, United finally tried to make things right with a $3,000 donation to the
Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz–a goodwill gesture that was way too little
and too late to stop the viral spread of the story.

Carroll himself has become an unexpected hero. He’s been
featured on Today, CNN, and Jimmy Kimmel, and interviewed by news agencies from
around the world. Best of all, the song “United Breaks Guitars” has made it to the
number one Country Western song on iTunes UK’s download chart.


Meanwhile, Taylor guitars just landed themselves a PR
windfall. Talk about creating products consumers love! Whether providing a
service or creating a product, the end goal of any successful business has to
be creating an experience that consumers love–one they want to talk, write,
and even sing about.

Now, just to contrast what United is up against, check out another video, made by Gory Bateson: “Southwest Never Broke My Guitar”:


Read more of Ravi Sawhney’s Design Reach blog
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Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.

Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety
of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that
includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among
many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150
patents on behalf of their clients.


In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design
Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek
Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results.
Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct
its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating
design’s power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design
strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is
a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC’s
Marshall School of Business, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Business,
where he teaches this business-driven design tool.

In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the
founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative
computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products
company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the
electric guitar.


About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue