A Cautionary Tale: Never Underestimate the Power of One Unhappy Customer

We all recognize the democratizing power of social media. Yet, nothing like the recent YouTube video by United Airlines passenger, Dave Carroll, and his band, The Sons of Nebraska, so exquisitely captures the power of user-generated media to impact a venerable brand’s reputation. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth a look.


In case you missed this story, in the spring of 2008, Dave Carroll and his band were flying from Chicago to Nebraska on United Airlines. Dave’s expensive guitar, a Taylor, was damaged on the tarmac by United baggage handlers – an event he watched from his window onboard the plane. Unable to get United’s customer service staff to make good on his claim, despite nine months of effort, Dave vowed that he would produce three songs and videos about his experience.

On July 13th, Dave’s first song/video went live on YouTube and within one week had been viewed 3 million times and been covered by USA Today, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and numerous well-trafficked blogs. The damage to United Airline’s reputation – even if all the coverage falls off soon – is big.

For every organization that believes its reputation is solid and impenetrable, this David versus Goliath story should give one pause. A few lessons worth noting:

  1. Unhappy customers have real power and access to a global audience to voice their complaints.
  2. Creativity plus a little humor and some effort equals great entertainment for a huge and eager online audience and lots of satisfaction for the customer/producer.
  3. The customer today (especially those under the age or 45) is very media-savvy and willing to put all their skills toward their goal …in this case the video was well tagged, seeded through Twitter and it virally exploded.
  4. The customer is always right and now, always ready to act. Organizations like United, which are slow to get this, pay a high cost. Repeat: The customer is always right.
  5. Once an organization is redressed on line, that redressing lives forever. Search “United Airlines” six months or six years from now and you will find the story of Dave’s Broken Guitar.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional, with deep experience in both the public and private sectors. She currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.