Is Southwest Airlines Still a Great Brand?

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The last few weeks have been bad for Southwest Airlines.

So bad, in fact, that it’s fair to ask: Is Southwest still a great brand?  Let’s discuss the cases for and against.

The Case For: Southwest IS a Great Brand

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would use Southwest in my keynotes and seminars as a clear example of a great brand.

I would start by asking the audience to join me as I painted a picture of Major Airline Advertising.  This was easy to do, since Major Airline Advertising is both familiar and largely interchangeable.  It might go something like this:

OPEN ON a boardroom with abundant natural light.  Our Hero wears a winning smile as he shakes hands with other white, middle-aged men.  We are left with the impression that business has been conducted, and that business was good.

CUT TO the interior of an aircraft.  Our Hero is seated in first class, because economy looks every bit as horrible on TV as it feels in real life.  A smiling, objectively attractive flight attendant checks in on Our Hero; though we are not privy to her words, her body language conveys genuine interest in his comfort and satisfaction.  Our Hero responds with one of those satisfied nods you only see in commercials; it suggests that not only is he comfortable – he has rarely been this comfortable in his adult life.

CUT TO the neatly-manicured front lawn of Our Hero’s suburban home.  He is greeted with warm hugs from his proud wife and adorable son, aged about 8.  Our Hero is winning at life, and he has his favorite airline to thank for that.

THROUGHOUT, an authoritative narrator talks to us about achievement, and connection, and other Things That Truly Matter.

CLOSE ON an inspirational image of a jet as it banks through the clouds.  Overlay the logo and the tagline, like American’s old one, “We Know Why You Fly,” as empty a tagline as you’ll ever hear.  (Consider it in other categories: “McDonald’s – We Know Why You Eat” or “Zappos – We Know Why You Walk.”)

I’d then ask the audience to consider Southwest’s advertising.  It didn’t traffic in clichés.  It was humorous, often while calling out the policies of its competitors – at Southwest, “bags fly free.”

Southwest’s taglines?  How about “You Are Now Free to Move About the Country”?  By my measure, that’s one of the best in advertising history.  It captured what Southwest was all about – the democratization of air travel, and the freedom that comes with it.

The point, however, is that it’s not about advertising.  Southwest’s ads were different because Southwest actually did something different.  It had a unique business model; the advertising was merely the shiny front end.

That business model had to do with operations: A point-to-point model instead of hub & spoke; a uniform air fleet and boarding by group number, which meant quicker turns at the gate and, ultimately, lower prices for you.  And it had to do with culture: For instance, customer service that could actually be described as “pleasant.”  And it’s not a stretch to use humor in your ads, when your employees so often use humor themselves.

One lesson from Southwest’s success is this: Do something meaningful, and you’ll have a story worth telling.

Do something meaningful and you'll have a story worth tellingSometimes, audience members would note that they, personally, never fly (or even hate) Southwest.  They might point to the “cattle-call” boarding process, or the fact that Southwest doesn’t fly out of O’Hare here in Chicago.

That’s fine, and entirely reasonable.  Southwest is not for everybody.  In terms of strategic positioning, it’s much better to have the love of some than the apathy of all.

Southwest, at one point, was undeniably a great brand.

The Case Against: Southwest IS NOT a Great Brand

On April 17, on Southwest flight 1380, debris from the engine flew into a window mid-flight, shattering it and sucking a passenger partway out.  That passenger, Jennifer Riordan, later died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 Engine
Credit: USA Today

The Federal Aviation Administration has since ordered emergency inspections of these engines, in addition to the broader investigation into the incident.  At least one passenger has sued Southwest and CFM International, the maker of the failed engine.

It’s since been revealed that, on Feb. 26, Bret Oestreich, the national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, had emailed Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike van de Ven to express concerns about maintenance and safety at the airline.  So if this was a known, preventable issue, Southwest goes from looking bad to terrible.

And, just today, Southwest flight 957 was forced to make an unplanned landing – due to a cracked window.  Southwest says it was a minor issue, but the timing couldn’t be worse.

With Southwest, we have the rare example of a differentiated brand that also may be failing at the important basics.

There’s a lot of press about brands that do great things – whether it’s a unique offering, a social agenda, or new points of connection with consumers.

But we can’t overlook the table-stakes – those things your brand must do to even have a shot at competing.  Nor can we ignore those areas in which we have a responsibility to the other humans on the planet.

Safety is not just table-stakes, but a higher-order responsibility.  Fail on this point, and you’re failing at both a basic task and the social contract.  Southwest is signaling failure here, and as such, its brand perceptions should take a negative hit.

The Final Verdict

Southwest has a solid bank of equity to draw from.  So it’s better prepared than most brands to weather these concerns.

But: If Southwest has lost sight of its own safety controls, it cannot possibly be a great brand.

As the saying goes, “trust is something you earn in drops and lose in buckets.”  Southwest’s bookings are down since April 17, and the airline estimates the drop in sales could cost between $50 and $100 million.

At the root of any great brand is a fundamentally solid business.  Conduct your affairs well.  Get your house in order.  That’s where it all starts.

And let’s not forget: A human life was lost.  Any discussion of brand perceptions pales in comparison to that.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here. He’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.

Copyright 2018 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.