The Power of LUV: When Marketing Reflects Reality

by David Heitman

Ask yourself: How often do you see a company’s day-to-day behavior match its marketing claims? Pretty rare, right? But quite inspiring to experience.

I had one of those opportunities recently. Though not a big fan of in-flight magazines, while flying back home from a business trip last week, I ended up reading the Southwest CEO’s letter in this month’s issue of Spirit Magazine only to discover an articulate expression of leadership and vision by Gary Kelley.

But more impressively, what he describes was exactly what I had experienced on my trip (and all Southwest trips).

As it ended up, on this trip I also talked with a Southwest manager out in front of the Denver International Airport as he was helping folks at the bustling curbside check-in area. I asked him why he and his fellow employees are so darn good at what they do, and whether the friendly brand really permeates the company?

“Yes, it does,” he said. He had worked for another airline (whose passenger drop off area was empty, by the way) where the sense of fun and customer care didn’t rise to Southwest’s level. He attributed it to the culture they embrace at Southwest, where employees hold each other accountable to giving their best. In other words, teamwork.

There are two vital lessons to be learned here:

  1. A company’s customer relationships will never rise above its internal culture.
  2. A company that charges half what its competitors charge can still outperform them.

What made my conversation with the Southwest manager so amazing is that it was exactly what the CEO’s article was about. It’s refreshing to see that level of consistency and integration at all levels of a company, where the everyday experience actually reflects the organization’s mission and marketing.

Southwest’s brand is so clear–the heart logo everywhere, LUV as their stock symbol (based on their starting at Love Field in Dallas, but extending to the kindness and good humor they show their customers.)

They clearly own the brand of the friend and defender of the air traveler, without the nickel-and-dime antics of other airlines (“Bags Fly Free”).

You gotta love the clarity, simplicity and transcendence in Mr. Kelley’s articulation of the company vision:

Our Purpose is to connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.

Southwest Love Symbol


Kelley’s description of the company culture at Southwest was so good, I’ve provided it in its entirety here:

“As summer draws to a close, one of my favorite seasons is upon us: football season! I know many of our Employees and Customers are passionate about sports, and football seems to rule this time of year, as teams wrap up training and prepare to take the field for preseason games. At Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, we are a Team—and while we don’t strap on helmets and pads, we are united, like all great Teams, by a singular Purpose.

Our Purpose is to connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel, and our success is dependent on our ability to execute and fulfill that Purpose. The key to execution is Teamwork, and I am so fortunate to be a part of the most successful Team in the history of commercial aviation. The numbers don’t lie: We have been profitable for 40 consecutive years—a record unmatched and unheard of in our industry; we consistently rank first in Customer Service according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics; we’re an Employer of choice, and we’ve never reduced our Employees’ pay or benefits; and we consistently make Fortune magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies list, ranking tenth in 2012.

I mention those accolades not to brag, but simply to show what can be accomplished when a Team of 46,000-plus Employees pulls together to deliver on a common Purpose. We will work to keep our costs low, thereby passing the savings on to our Customers in the form of low fares. We will not nickel-and-dime our Customers. We are committed to providing you the best Customer Experience in the business. We will do our best to make the airport experience smooth, convenient, and pleasant. And our Team is committed to getting you to your destination ontime, with your bag, and with a smile.

I’ve been privileged to be part of the Southwest Team for 27 years. Southwest has the heart of a champion and a passion for Teamwork and serving you, our valued Customers. Here’s to another great season!”