United Airlines had a pretty awful 2017 when it came to negative press.

In March, there was #leggingsgate after a passenger tweeted that boarding crew weren’t allowing women wearing leggings to board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis.

Then in April, airport police were filmed forcibly evicting a passenger to make room for United employees. The video, taken by a fellow passenger, instantly went viral. To make matters worse, the CEO’s public apology seemed rather hollow after an email to employees was leaked, seemingly defending the staff by saying the passenger was being “disruptive and belligerent”.

Could United Airlines have had a worse year for PR?!

Yes, as it turns out.

In 2009 a disgruntled passenger, guitarist Dave Carroll, took his complaint to the next level when he wrote a song and recorded a music video to go with it. ‘United Breaks Guitars’ has now been viewed an incredible 17 million times on YouTube.

The brilliant lyrics tell the story of how the musician was travelling with his band when a fellow passenger saw the ground crew throwing luggage around – including his beloved Taylor guitar.

Several cabin crew “showed complete indifference” when he alerted them, and upon landing in Nebraska his worst fears were confirmed when he found his guitar had been damaged. “So began a year long saga” of trying to get the airline to admit fault and pay for the repair. It’s this frustration – and their eventual denial of his claim – that led to him fighting back in the best way he knew how.

After 17 million views – plus news broadcasts, chat show appearances, a response video from Taylor guitars, a book and a speaking tour – United Airlines’ name has certainly been dragged through the mud…

An unmitigated PR disaster.

What does good look like?

United Airlines – as all businesses should – needs to get its house in order to make sure it delivers on the promises it makes to its customers. In this case it’s the safe transit of the travellers and their luggage. Not living up to your promises is immensely damaging to your brand.

No amount of advertising, promotion or other marketing can overcome consistently bad service. If a business keeps treating customers poorly, they will eventually vote with their feet and move to a competitor.

It’s one of the reasons why Ryanair – to keep with an aviation example – will be focusing on customer service and not just price in their marketing communications for 2018 (as reported in The Drum).

Take customer complaints seriously. It can be the difference between them returning, or never spending another penny with you, bad-mouthing you to ten of their friends and writing a hit song at your expense. (OK, maybe just the first two.)

Moving forward

This story reminds us to make sure we’re offering the best service we can to our customers. If we don’t, we could be the victim of a huge ‘PR fail’ like this. Taking the time to listen to customer feedback and using it to improve your service is essential.

You can’t control everything though. Mistakes happen. Employees sometimes don’t deliver the customer care you expect of them, no matter how much training you provide. But when these situations happen, admit the fault and do something about it. It certainly would have prevented this video being made.

  • What’s the moral of this Bad Marketing story for you?
  • What should they have done differently?
  • What are your key takeaways from this Marketing Fail?
  • What will you do differently in future?
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