Social Media Smackdown: How One Guy With a Guitar Made a Difference

People tend to bond over common experiences like shared triumphs or tragedies. In fact, it’s one of the principles companies rely on when they build brand loyalty. Yet, in the age of social media, the …

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People tend to bond over common experiences like shared triumphs or tragedies. In fact, it’s one of the principles companies rely on when they build brand loyalty. Yet, in the age of social media, the concept has become a double-edged sword. One customer made a difference using his songwriting abilities, guitar, and a social media platform to tell his story with as much good humor as possible. His tale of bad customer service from United Airlines and good service from a guitar company resonated with millions of people globally.

After taking a beating in the stock market and late-night comedy circles, United Airlines eventually backpedaled to reevaluate its policies. Meanwhile, Taylor Guitars, already prized by musicians worldwide for its acoustic, electric, and nearly unlimited custom build guitar designs, shined for its customer service, generosity, and compassion.

2008: “A Vicious Act of Malice”

The University of Nebraska in Omaha invited Canadian singer and songwriter Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, to perform in the Spring of 2008. They had to travel from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they lived. They took United Airlines flights connecting through Chicago O’Hare.

When the flight arrived at O’Hare, a passenger seated behind the band remarked that baggage handlers were throwing guitars on the tarmac. As they looked out the plane’s windows, the bandmates confirmed the indelicate handling and the items’ ownership. Fearing the worst, Carroll tried to contact three different United Airlines customer service representatives during the layover, but he said none of them would take a formal complaint from him.

Ticketing and luggage agents in Omaha had gone home for the night by the time the connecting flight delivered passengers to the destination. Carroll inspected his instruments and found the neck of his Taylor guitar broken, a large hole in the body, and the Western red cedar top wood peeling off. The musician had paid $3,500 for the guitar when, as he told CHMA in a 2022 interview, he didn’t have money to spare.

Ultimately, United Airlines customer service gave Carroll the runaround for more than nine months as he attempted to hold them accountable for the damage its employees had inflicted on his guitar. Although nobody at the airline disputed the fact that baggage handlers had damaged the instrument, the last customer service agent the musician spoke with informed him the company denied any claim for compensation because they claimed he hadn’t filed his property claim within 24 hours of when the damage occurred.

Exasperated, Carroll vowed to write three songs and produce three accompanying YouTube videos about his experience. He stated his goal was to reach an audience of at least one million viewers with the combination of the three multimedia presentations. He hoped to build solidarity to change corporate cultures that seemingly disrespected individual customers. He told the customer service rep he would email her links to each video when he posted them.

“United Breaks Guitars”

With the help of friends, bandmates, colleagues, family, and community members, Carroll recorded his first song and shot the first video for a total budget of $150. He spent most of that sum buying the cast and crew lunch on the day they shot the video at the local firehouse, where he also volunteered as a fireman. Videographer friends donated their time and efforts.

Carroll released “United Breaks Guitars” on the evening of July 6, 2009, messaging his 400 social media contacts to ask them to watch the video. In one day, it garnered 150,000 views. The video amassed half a million views in the first three days, and 5 million by mid-August that year. The presentation hit the 10 million view benchmark in February 2011 and recorded 22 million views as of March 2022.

Repercussions to United Airlines were fairly immediate — news outlets reported company stock values dropped by 10% within days of the viral video’s release, costing stockholders up to $180 million. The airline asked Carroll about using the video in their customer training and offered the musician $3000 in belated compensation. The musician declined the airline’s offer, and United donated the sum to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a non-profit chaired primarily by the airline’s executives.

By contrast, Bob Taylor, one of Taylor Guitars’ co-owners, contacted Carroll soon after the video’s release to offer two new guitars and props for upcoming videos as a gesture of his appreciation for the name recognition his company received from the video. Each guitar was likely equal in value to the compensation offered by United. Taylor called the YouTube production “a brilliant use of social media.”

As promised, Carroll released two more videos featuring original songs and lyrics. He released the second video on August 17, 2009, and the third and final video on March 1, 2010. The series of videos unexpectedly launched Carroll into a speaking career, addressing universities and conferences about the importance of customer service and the newfound power of social media.

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