Southwest Mulls New Strategy in Creative Search

RFP cites business growth, copycat rivals

Don’t be fooled by its name. Southwest Airlines is a big national player and, with its $1 billion acquisition of AirTran, will begin to start flying to Mexico and the Caribbean.

Southwest claims to carry more domestic passengers than any other airline. In short, the carrier, in its 31 years with lead creative shop GSD&M, has vaulted from being an underdog to a big cheese. All that growth has given Southwest marketing executives pause. Is the brand’s long-running, anti-establishment positioning in the marketplace still relevant?

Such is the core question behind Southwest’s ongoing creative review, according to the request for proposals that the company sent to interested agencies. The RFP—a copy of which Adweek has obtained—lays out the rationale for the search, the nature of the assignment and Southwest’s timetable for completing the process.

Beyond business growth, other factors that triggered the review included a “proliferation of ‘me too’ low-fare players,” industry consolidation and increased differentiation by rivals, the RFP notes.

The assignment up for grabs is to provide “thought leadership in refining its brand positioning and to develop an associated campaign for a national fall 2012 campaign,” the document explains. “The winning agency will become an additional agency resource for Southwest Airlines and its assistance may also be requested for other select local and national campaigns.”

So, GSD&M isn’t being replaced per se, but may get company and consequently cede its lead strategic role to another shop. The RFP notes that the Austin, Texas-based agency—which has been invited to participate in the process—“will continue to focus on consumer marketing opportunities and the integration of AirTran. These efforts include a variety of tactics with the core messages of low fares, great customer service, bags fly free and no change fees.”

Based on responses to the RFP, Southwest will select about a half-dozen shops to meet early next month at the company’s headquarters in Dallas. The airline will then narrow the field to three or four finalists. Final presentations are slated for early May.

Among the key decision-makers are chief marketing officer Dave Ridley; Kevin Krone, vp of marketing, sales and distribution; and Michael Van Houweling, senior director of product and brand marketing.

Southwest and AirTran collectively spend about $200 million in media each year. That was the combined total in 2010, with $190 million coming from Southwest, according to Nielsen. In the first nine months of 2011, the combined spending was $176 million: $168 million from Southwest and $8 million from AirTran. Those figures don’t include online outlays.

Not in play are Southwest's media planning and buying business, digital marketing and multicultural advertising. Select Resources International in Santa Monica, Calif. is managing the search.