Audience Choice

Marketer of the Year Runner-Up: Southwest

With Its Simple Message of 'Bags Fly Free,' Low-Cost Carrier Has Been Winning Recession-Weary Travelers

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- The brilliance, of course, is in its simplistic message.

No matter how it's said, no matter how it's presented, this is what the consumer hears from Southwest Airlines.

"We don't charge for baggage. Other airlines do."

Southwest's popular "Grab Your Bag, It's On" campaign, produced by longtime agency GSD&M Idea City, Austin, Texas, started in the summer of 2009 and has been a hit ever since. Different iterations have sprung from the same idea, notably the "Bags Fly Free" marketing effort that launched in the fall of last year.

In the TV commercials, Southwest baggage handlers are shown in various states of incredulousness over the fact that other airlines are charging customers for their bags. That includes one humorous spot in which the handlers line up on the tarmac as a plane from another airline is taxiing, lift their shirts to spell out "Bags Fly Free" on their bodies and mock the passengers -- reminiscent, almost, of the scene in the movie "Braveheart" where Mel Gibson and his Scottish freedom fighters line up before battle, turn their backs, lift their kilts and moon the British soldiers.

"This has been winning passengers everywhere," said airline analyst Joe Brancatelli, who runs the travel site "Every time [Southwest CEO] Gary Kelly sees another airline adopt any kind of baggage fee, he must love it."

And while the low-cost carrier has built its recession-era message about saving consumers money, Southwest has long earned high marks for its customer service. It has consistently received the lowest ratio of complaints per passenger boarded out of all major U.S. carriers that have been reporting statistics to the Department of Transportation since September 1987, which is when the DOT began tracking customer-satisfaction statistics and publishing its Air Travel Consumer Report. And in June, the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Southwest No. 1 among all airlines for the 17th year in a row.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has had quite a year. In July, the company recorded second-quarter profit of $112 million on revenue of $3.17 billion. That's up almost 23% over the second quarter of 2009.

"Southwest gained an entire point in market share in the last year," Mr. Brancatelli said. "That may not sound like a lot to a lot of people, but in the airline industry, which is glacial, that's an astonishing number."

In a statement, Mr. Kelly attributed some of the growth to the ad campaign. "We experienced record traffic levels during the quarter, despite flat year-over-year capacity, demonstrating a continuing and significant market share shift to Southwest, in part due to our unique and successful 'Bags Fly Free' policy," he said.

KEVIN KRONE: VP-marketing, sales and distribution for Southwest
KEVIN KRONE: VP-marketing, sales and distribution for Southwest
"They've done everything right with this campaign," said Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler, who runs

The latest iteration of the work, "Good Cop, Bag Cop," was launched last month, in time for football season. In the spot, SWA employees go as far as trying to pull planes over to save baggage from the dreaded fate of the $120 fee.

Mr. Kelly also made it a point last month of saying that there will be no baggage fees at AirTran Airways, which Southwest is acquiring.

"They've made 'Bags Fly Free' the cornerstone of their marketing," Mr. Brancatelli said. "It engages customers to no end. What Gary Kelly said recently -- 'If you're going to be in the transportation business, you should be prepared to take people's baggage' -- [has never been] more true. The consumer sees the commercials, and all they think is this: 'Southwest Airlines. We don't charge for bags.' "

How much simpler can it be?

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