It was one of the first stories any of us heard about the power of social media and how it was changing brands. In Spring 2008, Dave Carroll got off his United Airlines flight and found his Taylor guitar damaged. He spent nine months trying to get the airline to make it right, and in frustration he wrote a catchy tune and produced a funny YouTube video recounting his story.
The rest is history. Or is it?
Is "United Breaks Guitars" a lesson in how consumers are wresting control from brands, or just an entertaining tale? Has Dave Carroll's saga been repeated so often because it is a powerful omen of how brands must evolve or because that story proved to be a successful sales device, raising fears and encouraging the purchase of social media services?
I have been asking these questions for years, but I think I finally got my answer Friday night at a terrific Ellis Paul concert where he described how United broke his beloved Taylor guitar and is refusing to pay for repairs. Déjà vu! We have come full circle, from one identical event to another. This furnishes us an opportunity to reexamine the "United Breaks Guitars" tale and what it really means to United Airlines and your brand.
Before we get to Paul's recent experience, let's revisit why Carroll's 2009 YouTube video became such a legendary social media fable. You already know the story, I'm sure; if not, search "United Breaks Guitars" for the 1.8 million(!) articles and blog posts on the topic. Each recaps how United refused to do right by Carroll until faced with an avalanche of bad PR in both social and mainstream media. It was only then that the airline was embarrassed into offering Carroll compensation.
Had the story ended there, the moral would have been concise and accurate: One individual, given enough talent and creativity (plus, let's face it, a great deal of luck) can cause so much pain that a brand must take action.
But that is not where the tale stopped. To professionals in the nascent field of social media (including yours truly), Dave Carroll was not just a skilled and creative guy whose unique talents and situation permitted a special way to elevate his gripe. He became, instead, a powerful everyman, effortlessly wielding free social media tools in the same way every consumer can.
This single consumer's actions were inflated into an apocryphal lesson: "United suffered grievous brand damage thanks to the new power of Word of Mouth (WOM), and your brand will face the same fate unless you change (and buy our listening/strategy/consulting services)!"
For years, I have sought evidence "United Breaks Guitars" represented something more than one guy's creative solution to a customer service problem. Yes, United eventually acted to make the situation go away, but was the company really harmed and transformed due to social media WOM? If so, there is little proof.
For example, the Wikipedia page for "United Breaks Guitars" suggests that United's stock dropped in the four days following the video's release. Of course, it is ridiculous to correlate a few days' stock variation to a single cause, and if you instead evaluate United's stock over a longer period, you find that in the six months following the release of Carroll's video, United's stock outperformed competitors' by more than 100%.
Another claim repeated time and again is that people who saw this video lost trust in United and chose competitors' flights. That is the standard WOM assertion following any and every social PR "crisis," but is it true? It turns out it is very easy to get people to watch funny videos or retweet brand-shaming tweets, but it is much more difficult to change buying behaviors. In presentations over the course of years, I have stood in front of thousands of people and asked a simple question:
As a result of seeing the "United Breaks Guitar" video (and not because of your own personal experiences), have you ever opted for a more expensive or less convenient itinerary to avoid flying United?
Not one person has yet fessed up to altering their purchase behaviors as a result of seeing the video. You're not surprised, are you? After all, you saw the video and did not change your airline purchasing habits, either. In the end, we all buy airfare the same way, choosing whichever carrier offers a route from Point A to Point B that is cheapest, easiest and provides the right loyalty miles. If we hate and avoid United, it is because of our own experiences and not because of a YouTube video.
There is no sign that "United Breaks Guitars" impacted consumer behaviors or hurt the airline's business, but did that video affect changes within the company? That is the claim oft repeated: United learned its lesson and transformed itself! As conveyed in the book "Empowered" by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, "United has changed its policies. Baggage claim agents now have a little more discretion with customers whose special situations warrant the company looking into the claim more closely; United uses Dave Carroll's video in it's training."
By repeating the story of how United had learned and transformed, were people like Josh, Ted and I (and many others) redefining the way companies must operate in the social era? Or were we merely cogs in the United Airlines PR machine, helping to turn an embarrassing brand situation into a positive corporate message? Ellis Paul's recent United experience makes it clear which is the truth.
Ellis Paul is one of my favorite music artists. I regularly listen to his folk-pop music while working and commuting. Paul is a terrific storyteller, an amazing songwriter, and he performs with a passion and wild abandon that I find breathtaking. His songs, such as Maria's Beautiful Mess, have appeared in more than 50 compilations and movie soundtracks such as "Me, Myself, and Irene" and "Shallow Hal."
Last month, Ellis was flying to a show in Portland. He got off his United flight and found that his expensive and beloved Taylor guitar, nicknamed Guinness, had been cracked in transit. Paul did what any of us would do in the same situation; he posted on Facebook, filed a claim and wrote the president of United. In response, Paul received a call from someone in charge of baggage handling in Portland, but all he offered was an apology. United will not pay for the repair, which Paul estimates will run around $1,500.
This is not a mere possession to Paul. He didn't find Guinness; the guitar found him. Paul borrowed it while performing at the legendary El Reno Vintage Guitar Shop, and you can see his first performance with the magic guitar on YouTube. As he tells the story, he had no choice whether to buy the expensive, beautiful instrument. Even though it is now damaged, Ellis continues to perform with Guinness, duct tape covering the crack caused by United's baggage handling. That will do for a while, but it must eventually be repaired.
Where's United's Social Transformation?
Paul's 2014 situation could not be more identical to Carroll's 2008 United issues, and the airline is dealing with it in exactly the same way. If United learned a lesson, changed its policies and revised its training, there is absolutely no evidence. Given the chance to prove how it transformed, United has failed. Just as it did five years ago, the company is "handling" the situation, not resolving it.
With Ellis Paul's United Airlines disappointment, we have come full circle in the social media hype cycle--two duplicate events separated by six years--only this time we do not have to buy the hype. We may have believed that Carroll's experience transformed United, but Paul's experience demonstrates otherwise.
The most provocative question is not whether United was transformed by social media, since it clearly was not, but why not? As social media pros hype the transformative powers of WOM, one of the things they conveniently omit is that offering better service to customers costs something. In many cases, investments in better service and improved WOM will provide a return, but that opportunity is far from universal for every brand in every category.
United could immediately pay every damage claim (or offer more legroom or give every flyer a free alcoholic beverage) and generate a lot of positive sentiment in social media, but that would also increase costs and prices. It really comes down to financial calculations: By treating customers better, will positive social media attract more customers despite higher prices? By treating customers badly, does negative WOM result in lost customers despite lower prices?
United doesn't need to wonder the answer to these question; it got its answer back in 2009 when you, I and everyone else watched "United Breaks Guitars" and changed absolutely nothing about the way we purchase travel. The fact United has not changed its practices is not because it does not care but because we do not. Social media changes nothing by itself; if consumers are not willing or able to change their spending habits, then social media crises like "United Breaks Guitars" will always be more smoke than fire.
This is not to say that WOM is never powerful, but that its power is not uniform. How often have you searched for customer ratings of airlines in the past year? And how often have you sought customer ratings for hotels? Your very different answers to these questions are why hotels thrive or struggle based on WOM and airlines do not. Because consumers probe online reviews when making lodging decisions, WOM matters; one study found that if a hotel increases its rating by one point in Travelocity’s five-point rating system, the probabilities of being booked increase by 14% and price can be increased by up to 11% without affecting demand. There is the power of WOM for you!
For too long, we have used "United Breaks Guitars" as a blunt weapon to put the fear of WOM God into brands, but looking back with clarity and hindsight, we can see the real morals of this story are:
If you are so inclined, please tweet @United and ask them to do right by @ellispaulsongs. With your help, we can get United to do right by one musician and get one guitar repaired.
I have no illusions that spurring United to action will mean anything more than an appropriate resolution to one customer situation. If they respond, it will not represent a new paradigm, nor will it mean United has become a new and better company. All it will mean is that one worthy musician got what he deserved from a large corporation.
And if you will not do it for me or Ellis Paul, then do it for United. Ellis knows Dave Carroll and is preparing his own YouTube song with the hopes it becomes "United Breaks Guitars, Round 2." Perhaps a few tweets of pain now will prevent United from a great deal more pain later. Better United hears from you on Twitter today than read about it on CNN or HuffPost a few months from now!
. @united @ellispaulsongs went thru normal channel; got apology but no offer to pay for repairs. Do you really want United Breaks Guiters 2?
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014
Déjà vu? @united broke but won't repair @ellispaulsongs' beloved guitar. If you think they should, please RT.
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014
Please RT to let @united know they should repair @ellispaulsongs' guitar. Why is doing the right thing so hard for some brands?
— Augie Ray (@augieray) May 31, 2014