By Ian Petchenik / Published September 2014
Ask any executive at Southwest about the graphic identity changes the company unveiled in Dallas yesterday and they are quick to point out that it is not a rebranding. But if it’s not a rebranding, then what exactly is it and why do it at all?
After Monday’s announcement, Southwest’s marketing and brand executives sat down to discuss why they chose to leave the canyon blue behind and what it means for Southwest moving forward.
Southwest’s announcement of a new livery and company-wide visual identity comes at time when the airline is preparing to change in a number of important ways. The merger with AirTran is scheduled for completion by the end of 2014, the Wright Amendment is set for repeal in October, and new international destinations are on the horizon. Southwest was also contending with a varied and cluttered internal brand identity.
As Kevin Krone, Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer, explained, “We needed a new consistent look. We had the heart, the plane icon, Business Select, Pets, Rapid Rewards,” and a number of other identity pieces. Anne Murray, Senior Director of Marketing Communications was a bit more blunt when she said the new logo meant “no more logo soup.”
Southwest’s goal with the new visual identity is a “simple, keen expression of who Southwest Airlines is,” according to Krone. For this simple, keen expression, Southwest turned to long-time partner GSD&M and Lippincott & Co., a global brand identity consultancy. Lippincott’s previous airline clients include United, Delta, and Avianca. The result of over a year of work is the new Southwest “Heart” motif with a stylized red, yellow, and blue heart squarely at the center of Southwest’s brand identity. Robert Jordan, Southwest’s Chief Commercial Officer, sees the new heart as integral to Southwest’s identity, “It’s our symbol like the Apple logo or the Target logo. It’s what makes us different and drives us.”
Part of the idea behind the brand refresh and rollout is priming travelers who don’t already fly Southwest with an image of a modern airline. Southwest wants the chance to make a new introduction to markets that have consistently viewed the airline as a leisure airline, particularly in New York and Washington D.C., and feels the brand refresh provides that opportunity.
Southwest will also be using the brand refresh to update the interiors of their aircraft. Jordan said, “Change in the cabin is coming, specifically new seats. We have found the Evolve seat has had an issue with durability of the seat bottom.” The new seat bottoms will take about a year to get into aircraft due to testing and certification requirements. The rest of the seat will remain physically unchanged save for the updated color scheme. Passengers can expect a bluer look on the inside of the aircraft, along with the heart logo featured prominently.
Krone also discussed Southwest’s much vaunted “Bags Fly Free.” On the question of that possibly changing, he said, “Free bags are a part of the airline’s DNA. People have a right to take stuff with them on vacation. We don’t see this going away.” He also doesn’t see a place for premium economy style seating in the near term, though Southwest isn’t ruling it out. Krone, however, specifically excluded the addition of in-seat power on Southwest aircraft anytime soon, citing the cost and weight of such systems. While he promised additional passenger experience improvements coming later this fall, he did not specify what those were.
But the new identity isn’t just for customers. In fact, much of it isn’t directly for anyone outside the company at all. Nearly all of the accompanying marketing materials feature employees and embrace Southwest’s culture. For an airline that believes its culture is what separates it from its competitors, it’s only natural to rely heavily on that image as the face of the brand. In talking with various Southwest executives it became clear that one of the main drivers behind the new branding was leveraging existing brand equity to project an updated image of an airline that cares about its employees.
It remains to be seen if the new branding will have any effect on Southwest’s culture, employees, and—perhaps most importantly—profits, as Southwest wrestles with rising costs and issues with labor contracts. But one thing is clear: Southwest is going to wear its heart on its belly.
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