Only July 6, 2009 – United Airlines executives awoke to discover a social media shit storm had erupted thanks to this viral video from Dave Carroll.
Thanks to Carol Solomon of Stress Eating for the heads up about this video.
The video above was a long time in the making. The now infamous guitar tossing incident happened way back in March of 2008. Dave writes on United Breaks Guitars about what it took to bring him to the point of creating the song (the first of a trilogy) and the video (again, probably the first of a trilogy). After months of fighting with various levels of management at United… where they actively engaged in the age old customer complaint strategy of deny, obfuscate, and stall - he writes:
At that moment it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it. However I realized then that as a songwriter and traveling musician I wasn’t without options. In my final reply to Ms. Irlweg I told her that I would be writing three songs about United Airlines and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download online, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite United song. My goal: to get one million hits in one year.
United Airlines can’t say they weren’t warned.
Dave Carroll promised Social Media Armageddon and he delivered.
With over 2.5 MILLION views for the video, multiple television interviews and the resulting blog buzz, this story is not exactly what most businesses envision when they ask for a viral marketing campaign. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for Dave Carroll… but it looks like a shit storm from the other side.
There are several pundits who are saying that United can make lemonade out of this shit storm. The phrase, “there is no such thing as bad PR” has been tossed around. One recommends that United should try to leverage this disaster in their future marketing.
All I can say is I’ll take a kilo or more of whatever it is these people are smoking.
If United were my client – I’d share with them the wise words my mentor shared with me over 20 years ago. When one of my advertising clients awoke up one Sunday morning to a PR shit storm in the Sunday paper of admittedly a much smaller scale – my mentor shared these valuable words of wisdom:
The more you stir shit- the more it smells.
Talk about pithy words of wisdom – those were it. So when I sat down with the client on Monday morning, my advice was simple: LET’S NOT STIR THE SHIT!.
My advice to United would be the same.
Don’t try to make lemonade out of shit stew – no amount of sweetener is going to make this palatable.
I would also advise United to FIX WHAT IS OBVIOUSLY BROKEN.
The thing is – twenty years ago – the customer service practice of dealing with customer complaints by denying, obfuscating, and stalling was actually sound business advice. Why pay restitution if you didn’t have to? (I have to wonder why flight vouchers weren’t offered to try to placate him.) After a few frustrating and fruitless conversations, most customers would become frustrated or bored and give up.
If this situation had happened two decades ago, there wouldn’t be much backlash. United might have lost a customer – maybe one or two more thanks to word of mouth. However, adding up the lost revenue and comparing it to the restitution involved in this situation would have made this an easy call a generation ago. This guy and his band don’t spend enough to make it worth it to make this right.
Twenty years ago – Dave Carroll couldn’t have caused more than a scratch to United’s Teflon coated brand. Without access to the mainstream media – his message wasn’t going to get very far no matter how catchy, clever or well produced it was.
That was then – this is now.
Now – Dave Carroll is planning a second video – riding the wave and stoked with all kinds of creative energy on how to make the next video even BETTER than the first.
Rather than play armchair quarterback to all the opportunities inherent in the situation for United’s competitors in the marketplace – I’ll offer this admonition…
A new age has dawned and it’s name is social media.
Social media makes it easy for average people access to a world wide audience. Those average, everyday consumers can use technology to create what is know as user generated content. Sometimes, that user generated content is catchy and clever enough to do more damage in a week than several decades of carefully orchestrated media buys and brand strategy.
In my book -Beyond the Niche: Essential Tools You Need to Create Marketing Messages that Deliver Results I warn business owners to be aware that “power customers” -those who can do serious damage to their marketing efforts – were not easily identified and as a result, EVERY customer needs to be treated as if he/she has the ability to influence dozens of other consumers.
Social media takes the power of a single consumer and expands it exponentially.
You never know when a consumer may have a popular blog – or even access to one – so treat them all like they do.
This is a full blown shit storm for United – but every day, similar smaller stories are happening all over the web. They aren’t as well documented as this one is but, then again, six weeks ago Dave Carroll was just another musician with a beef against United.
Another crippling blow in retaliation to piss poor customer service has been delivered.