Southwest Lets Fly Massive Brand Refresh

Airline Revamps Ads, Tagline, Plane Design, Airport Kiosks in Push To Show its Heart

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Southwest Airlines is unveiling an unprecedented brand refresh as it grows up and out of the U.S.

The carrier is revamping its campaign, tagline, in-airport signage and even the aesthetic of its planes -- everything Southwest that's seen by the public is part of the effort, which will emphasize the company's heart and the hospitality of its employees. The initial effort breaks today with a commercial unveiling the new plane design themed, "Without a heart, it's just a machine."

The effort comes as Southwest tries to position itself as a more professional and mature airline. It's 2011 deal to acquire AirTran is expected to be completed by the end of the year and the carrier has begun offering international flights and broadening its U.S. footprint to hubs like New York and Washington D.C. In July, Southwest announced plans to resume a list of 50 potential international cities the former "peanuts airline" may expand into.

Southwest has long pitched its customer service, and the company will continue to tout that, said Kevin Krone, chief marketing officer at Southwest. But the new push aims to raise that bar by drawing in new passengers beyond its faithful flyers with the message that unlike most airlines, it cares. As such, the copy in the initial spot says the airline "puts your need first" and that Southwest knows "people are its most powerful fuel."

"This industry does struggle with standing out in general," said Mr. Krone. "We've always had a strong brand and we've had so much to work with, but we wanted make sure we protect the brand and treat it in the right way going forward."

The relaunch is by far the airline's biggest to date. Southwest has tinkered with various branding elements over time, but this push is different in that it covers all communications, products and even its airport kiosks. Southwest revamped its planes exteriors in 2001, but the company continued to use the same logo and marketing. In recent years, it's cycled through a number of campaigns and taglines, but kept the same look on its aircraft.

GSD&M, which has been working with the brand for more than 30 years, led the marketing for the rebrand. Branding firm Lippincott handled the design of plane's exterior, the in-flight materials, the in-airport look and the logo redesign, Razorfish handled the design of the Southwest microsite. Camelot, Southwest's longtime media agency, fielded the media.

Rodney Abbot, senior design partner at Lippincott, said it was time to synchronize the branding. "Over time, [Southwest's] identity had gathered more and more versions, so that it became just an overwhelming and disjointed presentation in how the brand was going to market," said Mr. Abbot. "The business was doing well, the experience on-board is really good, but to those who don't fly Southwest, it didn't look current -- it looked a bit chaotic because of competing visual identities."

In the second quarter of this year, Southwest reported record net income of $485 million, up 77% from the comparable quarter in 2013. Passenger revenue was up 8.5% to $4.75 billion. But it has had issues with late flights for a significant part of the last year, ranking it near the bottom on the U.S. Department of Transportation's monthly report of airline on-time performance. (However, in August, 73% of all Southwest flights arrived on time, up from 63% of flights being on time in July, according to flight tracker FlightView.)

Southwest has scaled back some growth in the last couple years as it worked to improve finances and cut costs to compete with rival discount airlines that have increasingly become a threat to the discount carrier.

The planes' new look, dubbed Heart One, prominently displays the company's name across the fuselage (previously it was on the plane's tail). As the name suggests, the new look also includes hearts -- the brand's longtime symbol -- on the belly of the aircraft, as well as one on either side of the plane near the entrance doors.

Last September, the company launched a tagline, "If it matters to you, it matters to us." One of its more well known taglines was "You're now free to move about the country," which was punctuated with a mnemonic "ding" at the end of each spot. That tagline (ding included) was last used in 2008. The ding itself was last used in 2011.

The marketing will roll out in two phases. The first starts today with "Machine," which will be followed up with other spots through September. Actor Rashida Jones does the voice-over.

The second phase will launch in early October and comprise the long-term messaging, said Helen Limpitlaw, director-brand communications at Southwest. That campaign will focus on its employees' hospitality. A new tagline will also be unveiled then and used moving forward. Ms. Limpitlaw declined to specify, noting only that it will focus on a "people-first idea." Work for phase two is still being finalized

Southwest has also been increasing its U.S. measured media spending significantly. In 2013, it spent about $199 million, up 43% from $139 million in 2012. Ms. Limpitlaw said that this year the company's tally remains consistent. While she would not detail how much of its ad budget would be committed to this campaign, she noted that "some elements of this campaign utilized reallocated budget."

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