Case | HBS Case Collection | January 2010 (Revised August 2011)

United Breaks Guitars

by John A. Deighton and Leora Kornfeld

Abstract

When social media propagate a complaint about poor customer service, an international media event ensues. How do viral videos spread and what can firms do about them? This case dissects an incident in which a disgruntled customer used YouTube and Twitter to spread a music video detailing United's mishandling of his $3,500 guitar and the company's subsequent refusal to compensate him. The song was called "United Breaks Guitars." Within one week it received 3 million views and mainstream news coverage followed, with CNN, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, the CBS Morning Show, and many other print and electronic outlets picking up on the story. The mechanics of viral propagation are uncovered, and the limited opportunities for response by the firm are revealed. The case supports the notion of the Internet as an insurgent medium, better at attack than at defense.

Keywords: Communication Technology; Customer Satisfaction; Marketing Communications; Marketing Strategy; Consumer Behavior; Network Effects; Service Delivery; Social and Collaborative Networks; Internet; Air Transportation Industry;

Citation:

Deighton, John A., and Leora Kornfeld. "United Breaks Guitars." Harvard Business School Case 510-057, January 2010. (Revised August 2011.)