SOUTHWEST AIRLINES’ BRANDING STRATEGY
By Vanessa Peace
It is hard to believe that a full year has come and gone since hundreds of Southwest Airlines employees gathered in a Dallas hangar where Gary Kelly, Chairman, President and CEO, recounted the formidable changes and successes of the company’s past four decades. As music pulsated along with a flood of flashing lights, hangar doors opened to reveal two identical Boeing 737-800s with enhanced colors, a bold new design and a simply stated new emblem on the airplane belly: a heart. This was especially fitting for Southwest whose very core has always been fueled by the heartbeat of its people.
Southwest opened its doors more than 44 years ago and set out to change the airline industry. With low fares and a passion for serving others, the airline insisted on doing things differently from the other guys. Today, the world is a much different place from what it was in 1971. The industry landscape is barely recognizable, and customer travel habits have evolved. Though Southwest has not changed what it stands for: low fares, a convenient flight schedule, and the friendliest employees in the world, it has managed to progress, transforming from a small maverick airline to an industry leader.
In an industry where bankruptcy and forced mergers have led to full corporate rebranding, Southwest, at the height of its profitability and success, had only positive reasons to create a new look. In looking at the past five years alone, Southwest implemented numerous strategic corporate initiatives that allowed it to become the most flown airline in the domestic United States. This includes adding the larger Boeing 737-800 series aircraft to the fleet; installing Wi-Fi and offering free live TV onboard; revamping the Rapid Rewards Frequent Flyer program; expanding to major markets like New York and Washington through the acquisition of Orlando-based AirTran Airways; implementing service to what will be 12 destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean by the end of 2015; and, with the repeal of the Wright Amendment which restricted long-haul travel from Dallas Love Field, giving more Dallas customers the freedom to fly to more nonstop markets.
This tremendous growth incited Southwest to celebrate a new visual identity with its 47,000 Employees with a new, aspirational visual expression of the brand—one that marries its colorful past to its promising future. A new logo showcases a modest tri-color heart and was introduced as a reminder to all Employees that Southwest stands for something unique and uplifting. Southwest’s genuine hospitality sets it apart: without a heart it truly is just a machine.
Before considering a new visual identity Southwest leadership spent a year rallying its employees around a common company purpose “to connect people to what’s important in their lives.” With its mission, vision and purpose clearly defined internally, the external brand work could begin. Once New York-based brand strategy agency Lippincott was selected, dozens of executive leadership interviews were carried out. Steering committees for ongoing reviews and eventual implementation teams were put in place. A visual audit was conducted across all customer touch points and this revealed a long history of inconsistent product and service branding that led to fractured brand architecture. The good news: by updating its brand identity, Southwest would have the opportunity to start from scratch visually by cleaning up its logos and adopting a master brand approach that would ultimately simplify the brand’s visual experience. Leadership reviewed concepts before conducting focus groups and surveys. True to its people-centric culture, Southwest included employees from multiple work groups who participated in regular review sessions as the work progressed.
With good corporate intuition and important employee and customer insights, leaders acknowledged the opportunity to trade the previous company look and feel for a modern visual identity that would be applied consistently both within and outside of Southwest. Everyone involved recognized the importance of the heart as a corporate cultural emblem and that Southwest needed to remain true to its history of colorfully standing out in a sky of silver planes. A total of 18 months of visual audits, design, testing, planning and implementing took place, all under the exciting veil of secrecy. More than 800 non-disclosure agreements were signed before launch day and representatives of every department were responsible to birth the new look and feel on September 8, 2014. From peanut packs to aircraft paint, mobile experience to airport wayfinding, every facet of the customer’s journey underwent redesign.
The excitement of that warm fall day in the hangar was the culmination of months of collaboration and strategic, cost-efficient roll-out planning. For an airline of 47,000 employees, more than 700 aircraft, and a total of 97 airports, the brand revitalization work was just beginning. A brand council was immediately set in place with representatives in each department received in-depth training on the new visual identity system. Each was given access to all brand assets for content development across the company. A visual identity control process was introduced and a brand identity & governance team was built to educate, review, and provide counsel and approvals for all brand communication assets developed by agencies, vendors and internal designers. For a brand with a history of having more than 200 logos in its arsenal, this brand authority shift definitely came with internal challenges. However, year into the new brand identity implementation the brand health metrics indicate solid customer awareness and brand recognition.
As the brand continues to update its look with changes to cabin seats on all new deliveries beginning in mid-2016 and an upcoming new uniform program, designed by employees, set to launch in 2017; it appears that the company is preparing for continued growth and another four decades of major milestones. Still, behind the new designs and the logos, true to its core, Southwest strives to stand apart from its competition.
Vanessa Peace is Senior Manager of Brand Identity and Governance for Southwest Airlines. www.southwest.com