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Broken Guitar Has United Playing the Blues to the Tune of $180 Million

Singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s United flight had justlanded when he heard a passenger behind him exclaim, “My god they’re throwingguitars out there.” Members of his band, Sons of Maxwell, looked out in time tosee their guitars being tossed by baggage handlers. When Carroll laterconfirmed that his beloved guitar was a casualty in the melee, it wasn’t justhis $3,500 Taylor guitar that was broken. His heart was broken, too. He wasable to have the guitar repaired for $1,200, but it will never be quite thesame. “It plays well but has lost much of what made it special,” says Carroll.

Singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s United flight had justlanded when he heard a passenger behind him exclaim, “My god they’re throwingguitars out there.” Members of his band, Sons of Maxwell, looked out in time tosee their guitars being tossed by baggage handlers. When Carroll laterconfirmed that his beloved guitar was a casualty in the melee, it wasn’t justhis $3,500 Taylor guitar that was broken. His heart was broken, too. He wasable to have the guitar repaired for $1,200, but it will never be quite thesame. “It plays well but has lost much of what made it special,” says Carroll.

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When nine months of calls and emails failed to net Carroll compensationfor the $1,200 of damage to his guitar, he took matters into his very talented handsand wrote “United Breaks Guitars.” Carroll posted the incredibly creative and hilariousmusic video on YouTube, where the infectious tune promptly went viral.

According to the Timesof London, “…within four days of the songgoing online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10%,costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have boughtCarroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.”

Can United’s 180 million dollar loss be chalked up entirelyto a song on YouTube? Probably not. Did the song have a very real and verynegative effect on United’s brand equity? Absolutely.

What can you learn from this great David versus Goliathstory that will help your business? Knowthis: Consumers will talk. And with thepower of social media, their voice is louder than ever before. You can’t stopthe chatter, but you can have some control over whether they’re sayinggood things or bad things. Companies have to be tapped in to social media to quicklyright wrongs and head off bad press before it spins out of control. Carrollgave United every chance. When, after nine months of calls and emails, United finallyshut the door on his communications, he wrote them one last time, telling themof his plan to write three songs, video them, and post them on YouTube. Hishope was to get a million views over the course of a year. His first songpassed by the 1.5 million mark within four days of posting. It’s now beenviewed more than 4.3 million times and is still spreading. After the video wentviral, United finally tried to make things right with a $3,000 donation to theThelonious Monk Institute of Jazz–a goodwill gesture that was way too littleand too late to stop the viral spread of the story.

Carroll himself has become an unexpected hero. He’s beenfeatured on Today, CNN, and Jimmy Kimmel, and interviewed by news agencies fromaround the world. Best of all, the song “United Breaks Guitars” has made it to thenumber one Country Western song on iTunes UK’s download chart.

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Meanwhile, Taylor guitars just landed themselves a PRwindfall. Talk about creating products consumers love! Whether providing aservice or creating a product, the end goal of any successful business has tobe creating an experience that consumers love–one they want to talk, write,and even sing about.

Now, just to contrast what United is up against, check out another video, made by Gory Bateson: “Southwest Never Broke My Guitar”:

Read more of Ravi Sawhney’s Design Reach blog
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Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.

Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a varietyof top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list thatincludes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, amongmany others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150patents on behalf of their clients.

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In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial DesignExcellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeekCatalyst award for products that generate measurable business results.Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to directits evolution into a program to develop case studies illustratingdesign’s power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® designstrategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He isa regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC’sMarshall School of Business, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Business,where he teaches this business-driven design tool.

In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in thefounding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovativecomputer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health productscompany; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of theelectric guitar.

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About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue.

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