Brand Damage Going Viral

This is a perfect example of how terrible customer service for an airline results in a PR nightmare and horrific brand damage.

We want to show you how Dave Carroll, the man who became a YouTube sensation after he wrote a song about United Airlines breaking his guitar in 2009. This is a perfect example of how your brand damage can go viral.

Dave C. finally spoke up. This after the airline had yet again proved what a terrible airline they are. They forcibly dragged a customer off a plane.

The story of the damaged guitar

Dave Carroll, a Halifax musician, flying on United to play a show…

While sitting on the tarmac before takeoff. He took a look out the window and saw baggage handlers throwing guitars around. It suddenly struck him. He had a guitar, and his guitar was probably among those thrown around guitars, that were getting terribly damaged.

Not only damaged…

And when he arrived, his guitar was not slightly damaged, it was completely broken.

If you know anything about guitars. Then you know how fragile they are, and how they need to be handled with care.

Even though his guitar bag was plastered with “Fragile” stickers. The airline staff didn’t seem a slight bit interested in how they handled the bag. They just want to get their job done as quickly as possible and go back to the staff lounge.

How do I know this?

A while back we had to assess and train airlines on customer service. And the main thing that stood out from the assessment, was that all the staff cared about was getting back to the couches in the staff lounge.

Sad, but true. It is a reality for most companies that have disengaged staff.

Back to Dave Caroll…

It cost him $1,200 to fix his beloved instrument. First of all, United refused to pay. As a result, he wrote the song United Breaks Guitars and uploaded it to YouTube.

Brand damage going viral from a song

Carroll’s song went viral. Hence that helped him launch another career as a public speaker. Here he advocated for compassionate business practices. And how if not put into practice, these will result in brand damage and a PR nightmare.

Think about it like this, would you like your brand to be famous for its terrible customer service?

This airline was the poster guy for “how not to do customer service”.

The number one question around this guy would always be “How did you become famous”? Then the story of the terrible customer service of the airline would be told.

And remember, this story will be told over and over again.

Upping their level of brand damage

That would become not only his legacy but also the legacy of the terrible airline’s brand.

A few months later, you would think the airline had learned from this damage, but oh no, not them.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. Headlines read…

United does it again – more brand damage

After a passenger is filmed being dragged off a plane, United had yet another public relations crisis on its hands.


As It Happens host “Carol Off”, (CBC Television), spoke with Dave Carroll to see what he thought of the airline’s latest customer service brand disaster.

Here is a snippet of their conversation regarding the passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight:

Carol Off (CO): Dave, I didn’t think that you and I would be talking about United Airlines again since they broke your guitar. What do you make of this latest incident?

Dave Carroll (DC): I think I was as shocked as everyone else. I discovered it myself after touching down in Halifax yesterday. 

Ironically, I was coming back from a customer service meeting where I was sharing my United Breaks Guitars video.

My phone lit up with interest and some requests. I saw the video that everybody else has seen about the poor passenger.

On remembering the past damage

CO: I guess why you got all those calls is people remember what happened to you and your song. 

United Breaks Guitars became a bit of a public relations fiasco for United back in 2009. Is your sense then that they haven’t learned very much since your encounter with them?

DC: I would have thought they’d make some advances, but seven years later now, the same sort of problem has emerged. I think it has to do with the culture of the company.

Disengaged and damaged employees

When my video went viral, I received letters from the flight attendants and the pilots’ associations, on their letterhead, and I’m paraphrasing here – but they said, essentially, “If you think it’s bad flying with us, try working here.”

So how are you supposed to dazzle your customers with great customer service if the people providing the services feel such disconnection throughout the company?

I think they have some problems that they must change culturally, and I think if they bring more compassion into the conversation, they’d be better suited.

Brand damage control

CO: We heard from the CEO of United, Oscar Munoz.

He released a statement after the incident where he apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers and said that they were investigating.

That was the extent of his comment. He was widely condemned for that. 

Now, today, he has gone further, saying they’ve all responded with outrage, anger, and disappointment, and they have the deepest apologies for what happened.

Why do you think it took 24 hours for the CEO to figure that out?

DC: It’s a mystery. The first one was so awful. As a result of a billion dollars in market damage later, they realized that this one story is actually affecting the profitability of their company. So he stepped up and gave a more heartfelt apology that showed caring and showed respect for the person who was affected.

It’s not just a story of brand damage

This is a person who was actually humiliated and assaulted on a plane. and that needs the personal attention of the leader and the voice of the entire brand to the person affected.

The second apology was where it should have been in the first place. Yes, the brand damage had been done, but what about the emotional and psychological damage that had been done to the poor passenger?

DC: Yeah. I think, especially in big brands, they surround themselves with a single focus.

In this case, a room of lawyers is taught how to protect the brand on the basis of what is legally entitled and that sometimes should be much farther down the list.

If a company is a little bit more compassionate, they can have better outcomes and empower, not just their employees. Still, their passengers think differently about their brand to the benefit of everybody, and not just explode into major brand damage.

People over brand damage

Ultimately, I think the big story behind United Breaks Guitars was about the lack of compassion that was there and why compassion should be a central feature of your culture and not just the PR around fixing the damaged brand, the people should come first.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to their full interview with Dave Carroll for more on this story.

Your challenge

What do you want your brand to be famous for?

Let me ask you this. Have you looked into your employees and found out how engaged they are with your business? This is often the biggest cause of bad customer service, which ultimately results in major brand damage.

Going forward

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