Brandchannel breaks guitars – or at least its own definition of “brand”

Branding blog implies a brand is all about “logos and ads”

Beg to Differ was shocked this morning to visit the usually reliable and find this article: United Airlines Loses Bag, viagra Finds Branding Opportunity. In it, salve Brandchannel updates the story of Dave Carroll, the Canadian musician behind the brilliant United Breaks Guitars. But it’s what they say about how this might affect the United brand that made us want to call Dave Carroll: United ain’t the only one dropping the luggage here…

The article as it appears on Brandchannel's site.

Smash their bags, ignore their pleas, then try to “make nice”…

Here’s how Brandchannel – which is a product of Interbrand, the same company that produces the annual Best Global Brands– describes Mr. Carroll’s situation:

When Dave Carroll was refused payment of $1,200 by United for his guitar, which turned up broken after a flight, the Canadian musician write (sic.) a song, with an accompanying video, called “United Breaks Guitars.” To date, nearly 6 million have watched it. The song led to Carroll becoming a speaker (i.e. stunt act) at customer service seminars. It was just such a customer service seminar that Carroll was on his way to when United lost his bag. For three days.

Now granted, as a performer, Mr. Carroll has certainly parlayed this event into both attention for his band the Sons of Maxwell, and into a successful second career speaking to companies about how they can avoid similar problems. But to dismiss him as a “stunt act” is to miss the point. But Brandchannel continues to miss bigger points with this:

But in the end, does this attention damage the United brand? Unlikely. Recent Forrester research shows that 75% of all air passengers “choose the airline they fly most often because of the airports it serves” and that nearly 70% hold convenient schedules to be of the most important criteria. Today, airline brand wars are fought almost solely over price, not branding.

United will take a few lumps; but ultimately, by doing the right thing and making nice with Carroll, the experience could even be a PR boon for the brand.

What’s wrong with that? Where do I start?

I’ve written a lengthy critique in the Comments for the Brand Channel article (it’s the first comment) so I won’t go on at length here. But in brief, four quotes of note:

  1. “Airline brand wars are fought almost solely over price” runs utterly counter to the spirit of holistic branding that Interbrand normally champions;
  2. “Doing the right thing and making nice with Carroll” misses the point that this “making nice” only happened after a year of NOT making nice, and then they screwed him over again;
  3. “The experience could even be a PR boon for the brand” this comes from the “no PR is bad PR” school of logic which runs completely counter to human logic (which is also brand logic); and finally
  4. “Several major airline brands have survived decades of service complaints simply because they’re too big or well-positioned (as to routes) to avoid and… because these airlines emphasize strong branding in their ads and logos. (emphasis mine)” This is from the author’s response to my first comment.

Some (rhetorical) questions for Brand managers:

  • Is “strong branding in their ads and logos” the reason United has managed to survive decades of service complaints?
  • What do you think: do Dave Carroll-style viral critiques ultimately help a brand like United by giving them more exposure?
  • For a brand are today’s ticket sales ultimately more important than forging a long term relationship with customers?
  • Does this article reinforce the Interbrand brand equity formula of strong brands 1) commanding higher prices, 2) positively influencing customer decisions, and 3) creating repeatable success through customer loyalty?

Beg to Differ says “no” to all of the above. But what do you say?

2 thoughts on “Brandchannel breaks guitars – or at least its own definition of “brand””

  1. Well, why don’t I answer the rhetorical questions in order:

    – Branding, as you allude to Dennis, is about so much more than ads and logos. Please God, I hope that is true or I have wasted my education and early career. And, more to the point, I hope that companies such as United understand this too – otherwise there will be very few jobs out there for brand managers! (Though, possibly very many jobs for brand consultants!) Branding, I’ll say it again and again, is about carefully considering every touchpoint between your company / brand and your consumers. “Is the way we dealt with this customer complaint on-brand?” is just as important a question as “Is this ad on-brand?”

    – Thats more of a tough call. Exposure, viral or not, is often good. You want your brand on youtube. But a brand like United is past exposure. They are in the evoked set of US airlines by their years of service and ads. Let’s look for positive associations now, guys.

    – Don’t make me go back to customer lifetime value here.. A retained customer is far, far more profitable than a new one. Enough said.

    – Interbrand dropped the ball here, somehow. They spend millions determining which brand has a higher value, but shoot themselves in the foot with a story like this.

  2. I can see how there might be some opinions out there that this is a big PR win for United. However, if it is, it can only be short-term and only time will tell. All airlines lose bags occasionally and belongings get damaged, we know that. We shouldn’t have to accept it, but it happens. To become famous for this though can’t be a good thing.

    Sure there are price wars and route wars and purchase decisions made on convenience. But all being equal, will a customer choose United when they’re taking additional/special baggage on a trip? Or will they choose a Cathay, Delta, Virgin, Southwest as they’d rather give their baggage a better chance of turning up safely.

    While the original author might not take it as seriously, I’d hope that the United brand team are taking it much more seriously.

    We’ve just seen something in Australia with Vegemite in their quest for a new name for a product they’ve launched. They crowdsourced Australia for ideas and went with iSnack 2.0 a name that most of Australia ridiculed. It’s been claimed a great PR success. Long-term I’m not so sure. I’ve written about it here:

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