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Brand Analysis: Southwest Airlines

Chris Wilks, Bo Bothe, Elizabeth Tindall, Leslie Rainwater


Solving for B°
Brand Analysis: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has been a model for brand loyalty due to their ability to stay true to their core values across all levels of their organization. Their ability to consistently deliver on their brand promise has been disected in classrooms across the country for years.

In this episode of the Solving for B° Podcast, our brand strategy team analyzes why the Southwest Airlines continues to thrive while competitors seem to falter.

Read the Transcript

Southwest Airplane Wing

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

Southwest Airlines' Brand Identity

Chris: Hi, and welcome to another edition of the Solving for B° Podcast.

Today I'm joined by Brand Strategists, Leslie Rainwater and Elizabeth Tindall, and CEO, Bo Bothe. 

In this episode, we're going to discuss a brand that usually gets a lot of love. They get touted as a brand that's very authentic and true to who they are. So we want to talk a little bit about why this particular brand works and see if we can glean some insights and ideas from how they've built their brand.

We're talking about Southwest Airlines, which has actually seen its stock soar since around 2011, and it's currently, at the time of this recording at least, trading right around its record high.

So, we'll start with this: What is the Southwest brand to you? What are some of the brand elements? What do you think makes it unique? What are some key identifiers of the brand?

Bo: Southwest is one of my favorite brands, and I've always liked it. Maybe it's the whole cattle car feel or everything's the same for everyone –  although they've made some changes with business class, but you still stand in line with the common people.

They branded Southwest as the "love" airline, the go-go boots and all the crazy stuff in their early days – people singing happy birthday, throwing peanuts like you're at a ball game and those kinds of things.

That all goes into that brand. It's comfortable. It's casual. There are other brilliant brands that have made an attempt, maybe not to copy them but take a different spin on it that actually work pretty well in the market right now. It is an authentic brand, which is something I love.

Elizabeth: They've always put people first. It's always been about people with the touch of fun.

Leslie: When they started, travel wasn't as accessible; it felt more formal. It was more for the business class. But when they first came to light they made it about family travel and fun, and they've kept that up, even if they do service business class.

I remember my first time traveling with them as a kid and it was a fun experience; it wasn't scary. It was all about family fun. 

Bo: I was actually ticked off when they quit using the plastic cards. I know they were somewhat gross – all these people handling these things all day long – but it was such an equalizer.

You got your plastic card, sit on the floor, be in position because you got there first. It actually incentivized people to get to the airport earlier so that they could stay on time.

From an operational standpoint, they've done many things to deliver on their brand promise. And that is one of the elements that make them unique.

Chris: There's a methodology to everything they've done with their operations and I find that important because people tend to talk about brands in terms of simply communication.

Is there anything else that is operationally unique to Southwest?

Elizabeth: I think Southwest is one of the best ones to showcase someone who truly loves their brand. From how they hire people to the experience on the plane; every interaction you have with them reinforces their brand.

Leslie: Let's talk about employees and how they hire them and what their strategy is.

They are looking for empathy. They’ve set up a process where they group interview, and when people are interviewing, they're telling the most embarrassing moment they've ever had. They're not actually interviewing the person that's talking; they're watching the audience to see who's truly the empathetic one.

Just that operational hiring strategy – to make sure that they found that one quality that they're really looking for – is admirable.

Elizabeth: Even when you read their Southwest Airlines magazine. All the stories they highlight are about empathy and going above and beyond to help their customers and deliver the best experience they truly can.

Whether it's going and meeting somebody at the curb who forgot some critical piece that they need to travel with, or a health- or job-related situation, there's just story after story of how they go over and above to help people. Not to mention the fun atmosphere of recognizing people on the plane for anniversaries and birthdays.

I think that started with the founder. I've read that he made it a real point to make it a family-oriented company. He would send handwritten personal notes to employees for birthdays, if somebody had died in the family, births, weddings, etc. That personal touch resonated throughout the company since it's beginning.

Bo: And in training, too. I don't know if it's still the case today because things change as companies get bigger. But one of the things that was touted in Nuts! and other articles about them was their training program and how they cross-trained.

At some point, a mechanic would be working the line – obviously, nobody but the pilots would fly the plane, but the pilots did work the front desk.

They made this promise of the “no frills, empathetic, we love you” kind of airline. They cared about whether they got somewhere on time, but I never felt rushed when I was working, even though they were rushing me.

They were all working together. To see an airline pilot – someone who's usually untouchable – sitting there taking tickets… Those kinds of things made them deliver the promise: they are on time, provide a great experience, have good values.

They only fly one plane, so the parts are all repeatable. The mechanics all work on the same plane; the pilots all know how they can jump to any plane. Whereas a lot of other airlines have this one, then that one. This guy can only fly this plane instead of that plane. They can fly one plane. All of those things go to the simplicity of the brand.

Chris: Everyone touched on empathy. This is important because this is how they make a connection. It sounds like they deliver on their promise, because – a lot of brands will promise, “We're going to take care of you. We put you first.” – but we've seen recently with other airlines that they don't really follow through.

Southwest vs. Competitors

Chris:  So in terms of their competition, is there anywhere that they exceed where others fall short other than delivering on that promise? Are there other differentiators?

Bo: Like many of them, they're not the cheapest. You can find lower fares now. It was like Walmart going from “Lowest price guaranteed” to “Every day, low prices.

Southwest has definitely shifted their message, but it really hasn't hurt them. Obviously, their stock price, how busy they are, what they do and they're kind of in a growth strategy – I don't think that's affected them. Other brands are coming to compete with them.

Elizabeth: They even kind of turned it to a positive. In their fare transparency campaign, they don't charge for extras. Others might have lower prices, but then they hit you with nickel-and-diming: baggage fees, food fees, etc. Southwest is just still simplified to make it easier.

Leslie: I think this is the only airline in that not only do you not have to pay baggage fees, but also if you miss your flight or if you need to reschedule, they put it into a “travel bank,” and you don't pay a fee for that.

Southwest is making exceptions for all the travel complications you might run into. It's just a better experience all around because of that.

Elizabeth: It's still reinforcing the customer service and experience by not penalizing or punishing you and gaining over your problems. They are putting their customers first. Making it as easy as possible while maintaining their business model.

Bo: It would be an interesting exercise to draw up what we think their brand pyramid is. Maybe what they provide is empathy and what the customer wants is a great flight to get to a place where they want to go do something. But the reality is that flying might be a pain.

You've got baggage, sometimes it's late, it doesn't always work that way. You might be going somewhere sad or you may be going somewhere you're really excited to be. And you want them to care about it as much as you do. You don't expect them to, but they give such a different level of service that it stands out.

JetBlue is the closest that I've experienced to Southwest. It's a little bit more corporate and polished. Their advertising is really airy. They kind of promote the more-room features. But they do a really good job. You can actually get cheaper flights even with extra baggage.

However, there's still something. They're friendly, but they're not that friendly. There's still something that's different from the two. I think that over time, that's got ingrained in me. 

Southwest Airlines on the Web

Chris: When I'm looking for flights online, I don't see Southwest posts in any of these online travel agencies like Kayak or Travelocity

Would you say that's a strategic move? Do you think that's a strategy to maintain control of their messages and prices?  How does this impact the brand? 

Bo: I'd definitely say positively. It's like Apple wanting their own stores. Leadership brands tend to want to have a little bit more control because it's so easy to lose it. It's so easy to get out of control about pricing. If Kayak's displaying a price that somehow doesn't match what I saw ten minutes ago on the Southwest site, I might think that Southwest is trying to trick me.

People don't sit down and think about that, but they feel it. They sense it. I think Southwest does a good job of trying to manage that.

Elizabeth: And those sites are all about low cost. More specifically, about competing on low costs. So they would not really be exuding their brand promise at that point. It's just the lowest cost wins if the time and dates are right.

Chris: I'd say it's become almost highly commoditized.

Leslie: And it makes you one of the other guys.

Bo: Think about how insurance companies have completely commoditized themselves with the price comparison tools. They have devalued what they do.

I always thought insurance was really valuable. When I was younger and I had my house, if it burnt down, that would be it. So I put value on it. Then all of a sudden they're selling, “You can get insurance anywhere. Just get the lowest price.

I think Southwest watched. They went in as the commodity player, but as they built their brand and everybody else started to commoditize, they pulled up out of it, which is an expression by not seeing them on those sites. It's an interesting study.

User Experience

Chris: One can tell, even on the website, Southwest works hard on creating an experience. They've thought about every step of the experience, which is very important because there are many examples of companies in any industry that don't think about the full user experience.

Can you talk about how having that user-centric experience in mind from the get-go benefits the brand?

Elizabeth: Their brand was formed around customer service from the get-go, and that's what had them stand out originally. That and the low price to enter the market. But they've stayed true to that throughout the years. Crafting everything around customer experience, customer service message, listening and adapting to how customers are changing has continued to propel them.

Even the boarding passes we talked about earlier. Bo was talking about how he liked to arrive at the airport early to get his boarding pass. They probably had a lot of complaints around that so they shifted to the online check-in. Now it's almost like a game of who can get there first, if you don't pay your extra money to check in early.

And that's even starting to change because too many people are paying. You have to do it super early, and even if you do pay, you might get a lower boarding slot. So I'm sure they're going to have to continually adapt and be flexible to how they deliver that experience.

Bo: When I was in business school, we did like 10 case studies on Southwest. So it might be old news, but one of the key elements to their brand is that they put their employees first.

I grew up in retail and it was always customer first. But with Southwest, the premise is that if the employees are well trained, they're working together, they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, they know, love and trust each other, they will provide better service. So it's not about beating people up all day and yelling at them to provide better service.

From a branding standpoint, those are the kind of things that get culturally ingrained in a company that make sure a brand stays true to who they are, and that they deliver what they're supposed to deliver.

Chris: It seems like customer experience, operations, marketing, everything is all aligned. It is no wonder why people study the Southwest brand.

Why Southwest?

Chris:  Would you say that Southwest is your brand of choice even though they may not be the most luxurious?

Leslie: Absolutely! I worked for a competitor for a very long time. Back then, Southwest did the cards. I hated having to show up early, even though I had had to do that before.

But after they started changing their service model, I realized how much fun it is and they fly to places that I like to go. They're my first choice even if they're not the cheapest. I really do that because I like them.

Last time I got stuck in Atlanta – traveling is stressful anyway – and I didn't know if I was going to make the flight. They kept calling me up to tell me where I was on the waiting list. Suddenly, one of the gate agents started rapping. He made up a whole song about how I was late for my flight.

Just that experience was so much fun that I remember being laid over but having a good time. So yes; they're definitely my first choice.

Bo: What makes a brand stick? What makes a brand memorable? Why will I pay more for a Southwest flight? If I'm not checking a bag and all I want to do is get on and off, why will I pay more?

Is it the Southwest companion pass program, the buddy stuff and all the different points? I think that might have a little bit to do with it. That kind of loyalty ends up paying off over time, but ultimately, it's all the impressions of people singing happy birthday and somebody jumping through hoops to get me out of Nashville and get me home to see my kids game.

Elizabeth: Those little things create advocacy over time.

Bo: I just know that they've done it over a 20-year period of flying. They just have done it. It makes that brand stick because the advertising, the marketing and the promotion are all true.

Leslie: They've always stayed true to one thing. They always were “Fly for Peanuts.” You remember that? They still give you peanuts, but they heard from customers who don't like peanuts so they started offering pretzels as well. 

Chris: I think that's an important part of branding as well: listening to your clients because things are going to change in the market and you’ve got to be able to adapt.

The only thing that's constant is change, right? So as long as you're paying attention, listening and enacting those changes, it will be easier to stay on top of your game.

I think that's about it for today, guys. Thanks for joining us. We'll get you back to your regularly scheduled workday.