Southwest Branding

Brand Fail: South by Southworst.

By John Butler
In April 4, 2013

Good brands are hard to manage. And great brands are harder still. So when a company has devoted years of hard work and smart strategic thinking to developing its brand — and been universally regarded as successful — people in marketing communications feel a genuine sense of disappointment when those companies execute a nearly perfect brand fail.

The best example of this in recent memory is not a company brand but rather a personal brand. There was a time when you couldn’t do a brand development workshop with an organization and not have someone answer “Tiger Woods” when asked who they believed would be an ideal personification for what their company stood for. The Tiger Woods brand stood for dedication, focus, hard work, integrity, competitiveness and, perhaps above all, a unique level of talent. Then, on Thanksgiving night in 2009, years and millions of dollars that went into associating his brand with international icons such as American Express, Gatorade, AT&T, Tag Heuer, Accenture and Nike all went hopelessly out of bounds when it was revealed that Tiger’s off-course persona could not hold up to scrutiny. Much in the same way that the rear window of an Escalade doesn’t hold up to a 9-iron.

Personally, as a notoriously lousy golfer, my interest in Tiger Woods never went very far past the redoubtable value and nearly-endless extendability of his brand. As a distinct counter-point, while I don’t so much enjoy air travel, I have always been a big believer in Southwest Airlines.

What are the most common complaints about air travel? In a country that basically invented the industry and holds wanderlust as a core value, most travelers had the same bad things to say about it: Too expensive; poor customer service; too restrictive. Essentially, airlines have taken the fun out of air travel.

Enter Southwest.

From humble beginnings in Dallas in 1971, CEO Herb Kelleher has grown the company and its brand to rank among the elite in any business category in the United States. How did they do it? Simply put, they put fun back into air travel. And they did it the right way, by infusing all areas of the business with a mission of reminding people how much we love to go places on an airplane.

With low fares, easy to understand boarding instructions and uber-congenial customer service, Southwest has grown steadily in carrier routes and reputation for the past 40 years. They aren’t the most prestigious, the most luxurious or even the most punctual — but in a post-9/11 world where people even dread having to endure the indignity of going through airport security, Southwest remains the only major player with a distinct reason for choosing them. Whether they’re talking about all the routes they have, their low prices or their lack of additional fees, it’s all about the fun travel experience you can expect — and they deliver.

And, their advertising always reflected this brand position—they take their jobs very seriously, but if you would like a good solid value and a more enjoyable flying experience, there’s really only one way to go:

A scrappy underdog, the anti-establishment outlier, Southwest Airlines has always stood for the little guy. Lower prices, more freedom, friendlier people. So now that the little guy is the #1 domestic airline, apparently management has decided that we’re no longer “free to move about the country” but rather that they are “free to deviate from a completely relevant and unique brand strategy.”

So, this past couple of weeks, I have seen something that made me feel the same way I imagine many Tiger Woods fans felt on that dark day in 2009. Southwest has decided to become just another airline.

In the high-reach, high-frequency context of the March Madness NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament broadcast on CBS and its partners, I have watched Southwest Airlines begin the process of saying, “Hey America, you know how much you all hate airlines? Well, hey, we’re an airline too!”

I give you “Welcome Aboard,” the latest brand commercial by Southwest Airlines. Take a look.

While this brand repositioning pales in contrast to Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity, it does warrant a charge of brand infidelity. I am not certain whether it’s the chest-pounding arrogance or the narrow world-view projected by this piece that offends me more. But mostly, it’s just the complete lack of “Southwestiness.”

In what may be the single most generic sixty seconds in the history of advertising, Southwest has assembled a soon-to-be legendary collection of images and copy that are nearly impossible to remember two seconds after the ending of the spot.

Here, let me help …

Planes? Check, we have those.

Pilots? Check, you need some of them.

Generic shots of athletes? How about some ballerinas, you know, for the people who don’t get that ballerinas are athletes?

Gotta have some babies. They don’t buy airline tickets, but everybody loves them some babies.

Don’t forget we need flight attendants. Sort of friendly-looking but definitely good-looking!

And for business travelers — they’re not going to know they can fly Southwest unless we have some generic business scenes.

And in perhaps the most condescending and patronizing line of copy ever said with a (presumably) straight face: “We believe that the American Dream doesn’t just happen, it’s something you have to work for. We’re for THOSE kinds of people. Because we’re THAT kind of airline.”

So, here’s a lesson for all you other airlines and prospective airline passengers just sitting around waiting for the American Dream to drop in your entitled little lap: You can just forget it. For the record, whenever THOSE kind of people (your new advertising agency) need to sell themselves to management, you’ll see THAT kind of sucking up.

The key to strategic brand development is identifying an ownable position and then infusing it throughout the organization so that any interaction with the company becomes a way to get to know the brand. Which is why this change in direction has made such an impact on me.

In an age when companies spend millions to create a brand that has the potential to appeal to a wide range of demographics and lifestyles, Southwest had lived one for 40 years that has helped make it the largest domestic airline in the United States.

And now, it seems, they’re willing to walk away from it because a committee of people in a board room somewhere has decided that they need to look more like everybody else.

This type of brand fail is a little bit sad, but outrageously stupid. And, more importantly, it reflects a corporate culture that has forgotten how it got to be successful in the first place. Congratulations Southwest Airlines, you’ve made it. You’re just another airline. You can start charging me for extra bags any time now. And I’ll pay it too. I don’t know whether it was the ballerina or the baby or the intrinsic ownership you have of the American Dream — but you got me.

The next time you fly Southwest Airlines, keep your eyes to the rear of the plane. You may see me chasing it down the runway with a 9-iron.

John Butler

I am a lifelong Clevelander and have spent nearly 30 years in the marketing communications industry. It is my belief that you need to have a diverse range of interests in order to bring perspective to a client’s marketing needs. So my blogs will generally be about social media, dogs, music, media planning, historical fiction, content marketing, professional sports, brand positioning, restaurants I like, quantitative research analytics, science fiction movies, target audience segmentation, running/cycling or the impact of digital media on advertising messaging. You get the idea.