Southwest Airlines: Brand Position


Anyone born and raised in Dallas plays under the shadows of red-bellied 737s flying in and out of Love Field. The guy who owns them has a personality the size of Texas, a dogged focus on operational efficiencies, and a penchant for disruptive advertising.

I grew up with Herb Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines and was also lucky enough work on the account during its salad years. The brand position of “democratizing the skies” had been chiseled in stone, and now-famous campaigns such as “Wanna Get Away” were helping GSD&M move from being a regional to national player:


But the brand seemed to veer off course as my time at GSD&M was coming to an end in 2007. In my last meeting with the clients, I vividly remember the CMO turning to us exclaiming, “We’ve democratized the skies. Now what?”

Unfortunately, neither Southwest’s marketing department nor GSD&M had an answer. Instead, they took the path of least resistance and created a body of work heavy on proof points but light on purpose. Southwest quickly devolved from a “why” brand to a “what” brand.

Fortunately, the leaders at Southwest knew in their gut that something was missing. Rather than exhaust this retail approach only to be left with a crippled brand, they chose to expand their client roster.

I came onboard Chiat hoping to help in this regard. We began by corralling key clients to flesh out the reasons why Southwest is in business other than to provide “freedom.” In this process, we uncovered a hidden truth: the employees of Southwest were scared of themselves. They had become the largest domestic airline in the country but dared not talk about it for fear they would turn into the next “legacy airline” complacent towards their customers and lacking company culture. In other words, they worried their success would kill the values that made them successful in the first place.

With these insights in hand, we shifted to the consumer. Rather than gather a bunch of people into the room or invade people’s homes with tripods, we headed to the airport, hopped on planes and struck up conversations. These efforts, combined with a bang up audit of the online conversation, lead us to a simple-yet-significant breakthrough: Southwest and its customers have a set of shared values, and it’s these shared values that Southwest has permission to communicate to the world.

In other words, the question is not “what’s next” but “what’s Southwest been all along?” Southwest is the conscious of the airline industry. Like it’s customers, Southwest believes in having a warrior’s spirit and a servant’s heart. It believes in the values of fairness, humility, optimism and perseverance. It’s a brand position that should be expressed both internally among employees (as they already did) and externally with customers (as they are doing now.) 


Helping Southwest find their true brand promise is just the beginning. We’ve already lifted every single tracking metric Southwest uses to hold their work accountable, and we are now being asked to take on a massive brand design/integration assignment that could impact a wide array of communications touch points. It’s this planner’s hope that our efforts to date – largely TV – will generate opportunities for truly integrated campaigns in the near future.


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