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  • Writer's pictureDom Castley

How United breaks guitars, and customers break marketing

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

During a 2008 United Airlines trip, musician David Carroll heard other passengers say baggage handlers were throwing guitars around. Sure enough, when his $3,500 Taylor guitar was wheeled out in Nebraska, it was in pieces. He was told by United that sorry, his claim was too late – it should have been lodged within 24 hours.

Unfortunately for United, David penned a catchy song called "United Breaks Guitars”. It went viral. The video was viewed on YouTube by 150,000 people the next day, with United’s stock loosing $180m in value. 18.1 million have watched it since. (You can buy the book here)

This story illustrates how brands have changed from something that marketers can own and control, to something that is co-created with their customers that they can only hope to influence.

This post is about how customers have come to be at the centre of a brand’s identity, and how marketers can win the digital moments of truth that are essential for attracting and retaining loyal new customers.

From market segments to customer networks

Under the traditional mass market model, customers were divided into markets and split into homogenous segments. The brands were in control, and customers were passive participants whose role was to buy products. They were reached by one-way mass media, and their needs satisfied by mass production. It was successful due to efficiencies of scale – generic product, large addressable markets, a low number of reliable mass communications channels – and a largely undemanding audience.

Today, the model has flipped. The customer now has the brand literally in their hands, with a huge range of free digital tools and platforms on their mobiles. Before a shopper buys in store, they have probably checked on their mobile if its available cheaper elsewhere, read customer reviews, sent a picture home to their partner to ask if they prefer blue or red, and if it can be delivered same-day on Ebay, rather than carrying it home.

Customers now interact, publish, broadcast, review, rate and co-create brands – and therefore have significant influence over the products they buy. Customers are arguably now more influenced by other customers than the brand itself. Rather than customers moving through a linear marketing funnel, they now connect with, and become part of, complex, interactive and ever dynamic customer networks. Marketing needs to work with this new reality, or become irrelevant.

Customer Networks have shot holes in the marketing funnel

The marketers basic job is to create awareness of a proposition and move the customer through a series of psychological states to a sale, and ideally to advocacy. The basic map for this customer journey is the marketing funnel. Originally based on Laving and Steiner’s Hierarchy of Effects, the funnel moves through stages of awareness (cognitive stage), influences (affective stage) and leads to action (conative stage).

Traditionally, marketers had a reliable set of tools to propel customers down the funnel, like mass media to generate awareness, point-of-sale to generate action, and reward points to encourage the next purchase.

Disruptive customer networks are changing the customer journey into a series of noisy cross roads where marketers must fight and win a series of Moments of Truth (MOT) to get a sale. Customers are constantly tempted to look at another product (search results), rethink their choice (bad reviews), buy another product (location-triggered discount) or complain publicly via Twitter rather than via customer services. Just think of "United Breaks Guitars”.

In the past 2 years, videos with the word “review” in the title had more than 50,000 years worth of watch time on mobile alone.


Critical decisions made in fractions of a second – mostly unconsciously. Any friction caused by customer networks often means failure, and puts more holes in the marketing funnel than swiss cheese.

Here is a hilarious spoof that combines a United promotional video with the images of a passenger being dragged off a flight. Note the screaming passengers filming the scene on their mobiles.

The question is – how can marketers consistently communicate core value propositions to their audience, given the disruption caused by these digital customer networks? The answer may lie in a deep understanding the micro Moments of Truth that lie along the funnel, and using the speed, informed decisions and efficiencies of AI to win them when they come along.

Customer experiences and Moments of Truth (MOT)

The speed of digital makes managing customer experiences much harder than just replacing a guitar. Choices between product A and product B are made in milliseconds (mostly unconsciously) and often involve complex psychological and behavioural triggers. A useful way to simplify this is to focus on several "moments of truth” that must be won to go from fleeting attention to loyal customer advocates. Here’s my take on tactics.

• ZMOT – Zero Moment of Truth: Coined by Google to describe the moment when a customer goes online to research a potential purchase. The question to ask is, “Can they find my product?”. Invest in SEO across the board – on page (keywords, alt text, page headers), off page (link building, forums, reviews, content syndication), PPC (Adwords, remarketing, add more here), social media publishing and a full content marketing program. Your brand needs to be omni-present across all searches.

• FMOT – First Moment of Truth: Coined by P&G, this is the crucial moment when the customer is confronted with the product – and its alternatives. Think “show rooming” where customers check out the products first hand and buy from Amazon on their phone (if cheaper). The question here is “How does my product compare?” Google statistics shows that when shopping online for travel, 99% of decisions were influenced by search results. To win the FMOT your marketing needs to be top of the search results, match the competition’s Points of Parity (POP) or basic features, and highlight the Points of Difference (POD). To win FMOT, do comparative marketing, seek customer testimonials, and be sharply differentiated.

• SMOT – Second Moment of Truth: The product is purchased, delivered and unwrapped, downloaded and installed, played or used. This is moment when the customer evaluates their experience. Ask “Does using my product match my brand promise?” To win SMOT, keep delivering post-sales content marketing to ensure one-time customers become loyal, regular customers. Show your customers how to use the products, help shoot down problems, suggest new use cases and importantly be active in user forums and in support.

• TMOT – Third Moment of Truth: Coined by Pete Blackshaw from P&G, this is when your customer goes beyond repeat purchases to be a fan who endorses your product. Ask “How can I support them to spread the word about my brand?”. They will do this by simple word of mouth but also by ratings, likes and reviews. Make it easy for them to share information and give five stars on your website, social media and platforms like Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp. Above all, just ask them – are you happy?


It’s clear that marketing strategies for shaping brand experiences and creating loyal customers will need to keep evolving alongside new apps, platforms and customer trends. Spend on digital will continue to increase. So far, so obvious. What else?

Firstly, it’s clear that smart use of marketing AI will be critical to enable the hyper-personalised customer experience in real-time – and to reduce costs.

Programmatic media buying can serve up different creative depending on how the user responds. Bots will deliver ever more highly curated advertising and content using the formats, tone of voice, channels and applications that we prefer. AI probably already understands our preferences and predicts our intentions even better than we can ourselves. It is the speed, awesome ability to learn and sheer scalability of these tools that will help win the Moments of Truth.

Secondly, the change to the marketing function will certainly accelerate. Research by QuanticMind showed that 97% of the industry believe that machine learning powered automation will become a core marketing capability. Practitioners will have a steep learning curve to understand a slew of complex new AI technologies, and separate the truth from the hype. As a consequence, lower-level marketing roles will be replaced by automation, with more emphasis on industry knowledge and skills like planning, strategy, and old-school creativity.

And lastly, although the tools and jobs may change, the foundation of marketing – a strong customer orientation – will remain. This is best defined as the organisation-wide generation of customer intelligence, it's ongoing dissemination, and the organisational response to these changes and opportunities. The key word here is organisation-wide. And it’s the job of leaders to create and maintain this customer first culture by leading by example.

And not breaking any guitars.

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