Southwest Airlines enjoys a strong brand identity associated with being a less expensive and reliable alternative to juggernauts like American Airlines that only deal with major hubs while charging exorbitant baggage fees.
Though Southwest Airlines is the largest domestic airline in America, the public still views it as a renegade and underdog brand in an industry vilified for being unconcerned and out of touch with customers. So industry experts and PR professionals were understandably confused by a new ad campaign launched by Southwest during the NCAA basketball tournament that is surprisingly, well, off-message and even serious.
The brand’s commercials are typically irreverent attempts to poke fun at competitors while emphasizing the one great policy that sets Southwest apart: no baggage fees. However, the new ads are sleek and professional, offering no mention of customers’ ability to fly without being nickel-and-dimed by dubious fees. That’s like a Subway commercial failing to mention that the restaurant sells sandwiches.
This departure in messaging creates a disruption in years of effective branding and public relations for Southwest Airlines — and we hate to see so much strong work undone by a communication breakdown as a brand evolves. Change is a good thing, but people inherently distrust any abrupt changes to brands we’ve become comfortable knowing. Why would Southwest Airlines change its identity so drastically without an explanation?
To its credit, Southwest Airlines has already officially responded to these new concerns expressed by industry experts. Spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger explained that Southwest Airlines has no plans to begin charging customers baggage fees and that the new ads simply represent the brand’s contemporary identity.
That’s fine, but when the company’s spokeswoman has to explain the intention of a new ad campaign, something is wrong. We’re guessing the PR team at Southwest Airlines is going to have a busy week. We’ll be watching.