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UnThink Solar
a div of Impress Labs
811 Sansome St
San Francisco, CA 94111
United States

No. of Employees: 33
Phone: 415-395-0941

Internet Sensation "United Breaks Guitars" and Its Lesson for Solar Companies

One of the good things about solar not being a main stream product—yet—is that solar companies can learn from the huge PR blunders of more established brands, such as United Airlines. 

With over 12 million views on YouTube, you may already be aware of this huge PR customer service blunder, but for those who aren’t, here’s the story:

A few years ago, a not-so-famous Canadian folk musician, Dave Carroll and his band “The Sons of Maxwell” had booked a flight on United, traveling from Halifax to Nebraska with a plane change in Chicago. Of course, they were traveling with their guitars and other instruments, and checked them in Halifax.

As Dave and the band readied to exit the plane in Chicago for their connecting flight, a woman seated nearby looked out the window and said, “Hey, they’re throwing guitars out there!”  Sure enough, they were the band’s instruments. The baggage handlers were apparently having a game of catch, tossing the equipment like footballs.

Dave could do nothing but alert three stewardesses on the plane, who neither picked up the phone or created a record. When Dave landed in Nebraska and picked up his luggage, his prized $3,500 Taylor guitar was in pieces. Not good.

For about a year, Dave attempted to get United to take responsibility for the broken guitar and its replacement, but every United rep he spoke to said that luggage contents were not their responsibility. Did Dave purchase extra insurance, by any chance? Thanks for flying United.

Finally, Dave gave up, but he told the last United rep on the phone that he was going to write three songs and make You-tube music videos based on his experience. His goal was to get a million views for each.  And that’s exactly what Dave did.

Here’s the first one, which has over 12 million views to date.



The above video and Dave’s underdog story was quickly picked up by major news channels, including CNN and Fox, internationally damaging United’s brand and reputation. Only then did United finally apologize and offer to compensate Dave, who said no thanks. He told them to give the money to charity, and as promised, produced two more music videos.  

So, what are the lessons for solar companies? There are many, from customer service, to public relations, to marketing, and damage control. Let’s go through them:

Customer Service: Make Exceptions.

Expensive packed items get broken all of the time by all airlines, not just United. Remember those American Tourister commercials with the gorilla baggage handlers? And yet, here the baggage people were clearly negligent—with witnesses. Moreover, when a customer states his case for nearly a year, supervisors should make some attempt to make it right. For United, they were following corporate policy and applicable laws, but they could have made an exception and all of this would have been avoided.

For solar companies, many things can go wrong on an install, especially on a home installation. Things get accidentally broken or lost, and poor workmanship can reveal itself just after the expiration of the service warranty.

The reasonable solution is to have an authorized dollar amount “breakage” limit for special cases. Granting compensation shouldn’t have to go all the way to a VP or CEO. For a certain dollar amount, the matter should be quickly resolved at one supervisor level above the first customer service person. For workmanship, give an added grace period of a year. Anything above that initial dollar amount can go up the ladder for more authorization.

Keep in mind that these types of incidents are relatively rare—or should be if you have quality solar products and/or service. Most customers will be satisfied, so your business model should be able to work in these occasional exceptions.

The upside of quickly satisfying these issues is that the customer will be grateful and tell all of their friends and business associates about your company’s excellent customer care—most likely leading to referrals and definitely leading to solar positive brand mojo. Besides, one referral should take care of the cost of making it right.

Marketing and PR: Social Media and Social Cause Marketing Work Both Ways

Dave and the Sons of Maxwell are yet another successful case study of social media with social cause marketing. Inspired by a cause (to make fellow airline consumers aware of United’s poor customer service), the band committed to a certain goal and used their work—creating music and videos—to promote that cause, as well as their own talents.

Solar companies can do the same thing. Pick a cause to support, whether related to solar or not. So long as you sincerely believe in the cause, it will be a win-win no matter what. Set a big cause goal or achievement, tie it to lead generation, and use social media tools to spread the word. You’ll create positive brand awareness and reach an entirely new community that is committed to breast cancer screening, for example, but who now might consider getting solar.

Damage Control: Monitor and React Quickly to Complaints

The positive side of social media can also be its downside. Social media is difficult to control once your message is placed into the Internet ether. Worse, as in this United Airlines case, people are able to place their own messages about your brand into the same unpredictable environment via Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc.

Not only was United’s relatively minor situation resolved poorly, it was resolved slowly, frustrating Dave and the band even more. So, be sure to monitor social media networks for any mentions of your brand, positive or negative. When you see a mention, respond to both complaints and compliments as quickly as possible. Even when it’s a positive mention, people like to be recognized for that too.

The pain goes on for United Airlines. Dave Carroll just published a book about the experience and his take on the power of one voice in the age of social media. Let's hope this lesson from United will prevent something like this ever happening in the solar industry, no matter how successful companies become. Social media, excellent customer service, and brand protection are just more ways Unthink Solar.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” advises solar companies on marketing, communications, and branding. Contact him through UnThink Solar or follow him on Twitter @SolarFred.


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