While Other Airlines Stay Quiet, Southwest Goes Big on Ads

The airline is uniquely positioned, and is investing heavily in new customer acquisition

The new "Wanna Get Away" campaign takes an intentionally lighthearted tone. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is rolling out its second campaign of the pandemic, another sign that the Dallas-based airline is going against the grain of an industry that’s faced pandemic-induced decimation.

The “Wanna Get Away” campaign, released today, features two 30-second spots created with agency GSD&M. It’s familiar ground for the brand, which first rolled out “Wanna Get Away” in 1998; the latest iteration is expected to run for a least a month across primetime television such as live sporting events, in addition to connected TV and paid social.

Among the airlines, Southwest is currently far and away the heaviest spender in traditional television advertising, according to iSpot, a company that tracks national TV ads and their correlated digital response, spending more than $10 million on a campaign released in June. By contrast, United Airlines spent only $67,000 on an advertisement that ran during the PGA Tour.

“This is all about getting people to book,” said Southwest CMO Ryan Green. “We want the funnel as wide open as possible at the top so it’ll capture more than our fair share, that’s why we continue to advertise in these mass vehicles.”

The lighthearted tone of the ad was intentional, a clear shift away from many brands’ approaches to marketing during the pandemic. “The last thing we wanted to create here was another ‘these are unprecedented times,'” joked Green.

Although he didn’t provide specific figures, Green said Southwest is seeing new customers beginning to book, skewing younger than the average traveler and booking closer to departure than normal. Of course, booking KPIs are nearly indistinguishable from last year as the pandemic has altered expectations for travel brands. In a filing, the airline admitted that positive trends in booking in May and June had stalled by July, and expected operating revenue to decrease by 65% to 75% in September.

To boost bookings, United Airlines was the first to announce two weeks ago that it would eliminate (most) change fees. American and Delta swiftly followed. United also made a made a new route announcement last week with a cryptic video on social media, but still isn’t expected to run a full campaign by the end of the year.

“Southwest realizes that if everybody is zigging, then there’s nothing wrong with them zagging. Their voice is that much larger when their competitors are absent,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of the aviation consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group. “Brand loyalty is low.”

Southwest’s investment in brand marketing—even with paltry revenue—is crucial considering the airline avoids third-party travel sites: Travelers can’t book a Southwest flight on Google Flights or Expedia, only the airline’s website.

Another is an opportunity to take advantage of the airline’s geographic luck. While the airline doesn’t come close to serving the same international markets as Delta, United or American, it does fly to Mexico and the Caribbean—some of the few regions where Americans are still welcome.

“It’s pure geography,” said Brett Snyder, author of the popular airline blog Cranky Flier. “When you’re comparing them to other global airlines, international is just not possible for most people because of [Covid-related] border control issues.”

With budgets super tight and travel restrictions differing state by state, it might not make sense for a brand to blanket the entire country in the same advertisements, especially when programmatic ads can return a more specific ROI. But with less of an emphasis on international travel, Southwest isn’t hurting like its competitors and can roll the dice to attract new customers.

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.