Guitars, brand hijacking & a case for the PR textbooks

You may not have heard of Dave Carroll, but you are very likely to have heard that United Airlines “breaks guitars”. Dave Carroll is the guy who, at a stroke has badly damaged years of United Airlines’ hard won brand equity and made the airline more famous for breaking guitars than pretty much anything else.

The case of how baggage handlers damaged the previously obscure Canadian folk singer’s acoustic guitar, how he fought for compensation and how he ended up penning a massive YouTube hit about the incident, is as I blog, being written into the PR crisis management text books. It’ll be poured over by communications professionals for clues and ideas as to how United could have diffused a situation, which is even suggested to have caused a slump in the company’s share price, for years to come.

It’s obviously another classic case of the power of social/viral media. But to me what’s interesting about the story isn’t so much how United Airlines should have handled the situation in the digital age; whether a swifter, less rigid and more human response to Carroll’s compensation claim was the smarter thing to do. (Hindsight is a wonderful thing).

No, what’s more interesting is how Carroll is using United Airlines brand to make his own content and his own brand famous. He’s in effect negatively leveraging United’s brand for his own gain. He’s also very smartly positioning himself to be relatively magnanimous. He even popped up on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to say he bore no personal animosity to the “unflappable” customer service representative who so steadfastly resisted his compensation claims.

That’s not stopping him writing another YouTube bound track about his United Airlines experience and specifically his encounter with her (although he promises not to be unkind). 

If it had been a relatively obscure domestic US or Canadian airline, would Carroll’s battle have made such great content, propelled his revenge video to the top of the YouTube charts and given him and his band a shot at real fame? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Here’s the thing: the bigger your brand, the bigger the potential you have to become subject matter – content not of your making or liking. Perhaps the only way for United Airlines to make headway and turn a negative into a positive is to recognise the entertainment value of what Carroll has done. Rather than wishing he’d go away – which he clearly won’t until everyone’s bored with the story (and that could take a while) – why not bring him into the fold and as a starter, get him to perform a gig to staff as a reminder of how they should live up to the company’s promise to treat customers fairly.


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