Southwest Reports Sales Spikes, Improved Employee Morale

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The deal: Southwest Airlines is the subject of A&E Network’s reality show Airline, whose third season takes off May 2.

The result: Southwest reports a boost in employee morale, a 9% spike in online bookings and branded integration companies knocking on the door.

NEW YORK -- Linda Rutherford almost tossed out the proposal for Airline, the A&E Network reality show starring Southwest Airlines. It wasn’t that the integration fee was too
The success of the show had a surprisingly strong impact on Southwest employees.

high -- in fact, there was no integration fee at all. Rather, the public relations director for the Dallas-based low-fare air carrier thought the initial proposal seemed overwhelming -- a bit too intrusive.

'Threw it away'

“Honestly, I threw it away,” she said, recalling the proposal that Civic Entertainment Group, which brokered the deal, sent about two years ago. “But [Civic] said to me that if there was an airline with the right personality to pull off this program, it would be Southwest.”

Ms. Rutherford agreed, and with the support of the company’s marketing team and president, Colleen Barrett, Southwest signed on.

The show, which follows the airline’s daily operations in three U.S. airports, premiered January 2004. It kicks off its third season May 2, and while decisions regarding a fourth season likely won’t be made until shortly thereafter, both A&E and Southwest feel the collaboration has been a success.

“It’s a beacon that we hold up as a real-life series success,” said Nancy Dubuc, senior vice president for nonfiction programming and development for A&E.

The show, which was A&E’s first foray into brand-backed entertainment, was based on a U.K.’s TV franchise of the same name and became a cornerstone for A&E’s character-driven programming platform. “Southwest gave the show instant credibility,” Ms. Duboc said. “And they have a personality to their brand as we have one to ours.”

Southwest did its research

Before signing on, Southwest did its research. It talked to Easy Jet, which has been doing the U.K. version of the show for 11 seasons, and to the director of public relations for Johns Hopkins Hospital, which saw its emergency room featured in ABC’s Hopkins 24/7 (2000).

The airline had to get clearance from the Transportation Security Administration, learn the ins and outs of a TV production schedule and find employees to volunteer to have a microphone tethered to them for eight-hour shifts.

“From a public relations standpoint, we thought one of the negatives would be when you’re having a bad day, when there’s a thunderstorm and things shut down,” Ms. Rutherford said. “But Colleen’s main concern was that employees don’t do anything on camera that they wouldn’t normally do off, that they wouldn’t promise anything on
The success of the show had a surprisingly strong impact on Southwest employees.

air we couldn’t uphold nationwide.” Ms. Barrett told “employees she believed in them and their ability to handle all situations, even in the presence of a camera,” Ms. Rutherford added.

Rise in employee morale

Because of that, Ms. Rutherford reports one of the program’s positive outcomes has been a rise in employee morale. And Southwest, which is widely considered a desired employer, sees a spike in resumes submitted through its Web site on Monday nights after the show airs -- double to triple the number it would normally see.

While A&E handled the bulk of the consumer marketing, the airline did offer cross-marketing support -- on-board advertising using peanut wrappers and napkins. And because the deal wasn’t part of a paid advertising relationship, Southwest stays relatively uninvolved with the editing.

“They took the first big step and understood that we know entertainment, we know storytelling and we know TV -- so we needed to be the driver of that and have editorial say over the show,” Ms. Dubuc said. “But they have approval over the final edit so that we never create a security breach. That [Transportation Security Administration] relationship is incredibly important for every airline.”

Staying out of the editing

Staying out of the editing helps maintain a feeling of authenticity, Ms. Rutherford said. “We make suggestions and they’re open to them,” she said. “Our employees will say, ‘Hey, did you know we have a comedian flying with us next week?’ So we pass that info along and see if they’re interested. But if we were paying for it and if we edited out the things that don’t go smoothly, people wouldn’t buy it.”

Ms. Rutherford said that when the time came to contemplate a third season, “we asked ‘Is this branding exposure getting us anything? We looked at research on Monday nights to see if we were moving the needle.”

Turns out they were.

On nights when new episodes aired, there was a 9% spike in online bookings.

Additionally, the show’s target demographics complemented Southwest’s marketing plan. A&E’s national distribution skews a bit more female, while most of Southwest’s marketing plans target males. Through a PR vehicle the airline extended its reach into an audience it wasn’t actively marketing to.

Mark Burnett and other opportunities

Beyond that, the show has elicited other branded entertainment opportunities. Mark Burnett approached Southwest to integrate the airline into The Casino and ABC sought Southwest’s involvement with an Extreme Home Makeover episode. Unlike Airline, however, those kinds of deals involve some kind of in-kind or trade value exchange.

“[Airline] really jump-started the branded content opportunities,” Ms. Rutherford said. “People turned to us at the time and said, ‘Wow, you guys are cutting edge.’ It was an intriguing proposal at the right time.”
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