United Breaks Guitars – or – is this any way to fly?

Back in 1970 American Tourister luggage ran an advertisement using a gorilla as a metaphor for airline baggage handlers.  That really struck home with a lot of people who travel.  Yes, exactly, that’s how the airline is treating my precious belongings!

As you can imagine, the airlines were not at all pleased by the portrayal.  But no specific airline brand was singled out, so the damage to any brand reputation was minimal.

Flash forward to 2008.  This time it’s a Canadian singer, Dave Carroll, who is pointing the finger at airline baggage handlers.  Specifically, the baggage handlers of United Airlines.  Seems that a year ago the baggage crew was seen throwing around Dave Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar at O’Hare airport.  Sure enough, that guitar was broken.  Carroll spent a full year trying to get United to pay for the damages.  And for a full year the airline said, “no.”

So Dave Carroll created a new song and a new video to share his experience with the rest of us.

He didn’t have a big advertising budget.  He didn’t spend a dime on paid media.  He named names — United — and told a story that  really strikes home with all of us who fly these days.  In 4 days the video has been played over 1.6 million times.  The damage to the United Airlines reputation is being replayed on mainstream TV, newspapers and other online sites.   

After the first few hundred thousand hits, someone at United recognized the cost of repairing the guitar was nothing compared to the cost of repairing their brand.  By that time it was too late.  In fact, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire.  The story spread faster and further.

And for this kind of treatment, United and the other airlines are asking us to pay additional $$ for checking baggage.  No room in the overhead bins on overcrowded airplanes and the privilege to pay for having your personal belongings destroyed.  Is this any way to fly?

There are two more songs about United Airlines that Dave Carroll and his band The Sons of Maxwell are making and releasing.

So is there a lesson in all of this?  Actually there are several. The first is the power of a metaphor (the gorilla).  The second is the power of social media.  And the third is that the power to influence opinion is shifting from the corporation to the consumer. Just plug a Taylor guitar into the internet amplifier and hear what kind of feedback you get

After seeing this video, would I fly on United again?  Perhaps.  But I certainly would not check my baggage with them!

I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction: this story will become a business school case study.

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