SBJ/January 15 - 21, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Southwest Airlines’ campaigns fly, but they don’t go anywhere

Southwest Airlines has created one of the most satisfying brands in the airline business with a carefully crafted, remarkably differentiating strategy: Rather than competing with other airlines, compete with the family automobile. If you need to get there, don't drive, fly ... and you won't believe how little it will cost on Southwest. Then it delivers a service that is markedly different than other airlines. No first class, no assigned seats, no meals (but all the nuts you want), just an inexpensive seat on a 737 somewhere, boarded first-come, first-sit, and really friendly, spirited employees absolutely everywhere.

Southwest has delivered its message with advertising that is now complemented by sports league sponsorship advertising, with varying degrees of success.

Southwest's core creative strategy in recent years has been based on the premise of freedom. Translation: When you can afford to go anywhere, anytime, you have gained a new freedom. The current tag line, "You are now free to move about the country," a parody of the in-flight cabin beep tone followed by "You are now free to move about the cabin," is a wonderful expression. Smartly, that "freedom" message is effectively punctuated with end-frame price-tag features for selected fares or route promotions.

So the approach works as a retail platform as well as a branding platform, and that's a lot of water for any advertising to carry.

The company's mainline advertising messages are generally amusing, friendly and people-driven. Southwest's advertising, which is done by GSD&M of Austin, Texas, is funny and human. The spots create embarrassing situations (which most agency creatives love as a comedic platform, but which generally fail because they so often paint the company's customer as a boob) that are paid off with a question — "Wanna get away?" — and a solution — Southwest. They don't totally avoid the "make the customer feel stupid" trap but do it in such an entertaining way, inoculated with so much positive brand equity earned by treating people nicely when they come to the airline, that they get away with it.

Southwest's advertising and marketing program is now bolstered by high-profile sports league sponsorships — including the NFL and, this year for the first time, the NHL. The airline wisely runs both its base campaign and sport-specific executions in football and hockey games. But the sports sponsorship spots are far less satisfying than the base campaign, and the reason is simple: They tend to be less effective selling Southwest than they are selling the sport they are supporting.

The NFL ads, which run as 15-second TV spots, take everyday situations and turn them into hilarious situations that capture the mania that is the essence of football. In one spot, "Shoe," a woman who is trying on shoes is interrupted by another woman who sees the salesman holding a shoe just right ... for her to place-kick it through lighting fixture "goalposts." In another, "Hike," an innocent-looking guy in line for movie tickets drops his money, and when he bends over to pick it up, the woman in line behind him (picture Boomer Esiason meets Linda Tripp) comes up, assumes a snap position and starts barking signals. The payoff is a graphic "Must be football season," and the tag is a Southwest Airlines logo with the copy "Proud sponsor of the NFL" featuring the NFL shield.

The spots don't sell Southwest very well, but their effectiveness in tapping into the vein of truth that surrounds people's obsession with football makes them memorable.

The NHL spots are equally funny but don't work quite as well. Also 15 seconds, they don't succeed as well because when they try to equate events in real life with events on the ice, they don't tap that same truth found in the football series. In "Turnstyle," a man stuck at a public transit tollgate jumps over the turnstyle and falls on his face. The spot then cuts to an NHL line change as players deftly jump off the bench onto the ice. The spot concludes with a graphic: "It's tougher than it looks," followed by a Southwest Airlines logo featuring the copy "Official airline of the NHL."

The executional premise extends to "Glass," where a bike messenger faceplants into a locked glass door outside an office building contrasted with a hard NHL check into the glass; "Chipper," where a landscaping guy shreds his colleague's work gloves by inadvertently tossing them into a tree chipper, contrasted with a great glove save; and the funniest spot, "Cookie," where a business-clad man and woman are pleasantly kibitzing after a business meeting as they are angling for the one remaining cookie on the plate between the two of them. As they simultaneously attack the cookie, the spot cuts to an NHL faceoff. Life may be like hockey, but the line "It's tougher than it looks" just doesn't pay off the idea. Everybody knows hockey is tougher than it looks, and it's plenty tough to begin with.

To their credit, the hockey spots use actual NHL game footage to add to the sense of authenticity. They use the sounds of an airline takeoff and crowd noises (including the signature NHL goal horn) to add excitement, and all that stuff works.

Southwest surely reaches an appropriately targeted audience with its sports work, everyday men and women who "want to get away," and adds to its patina of brand quality by associating with two of the premier sports leagues. Perhaps as its advertising efforts evolve, Southwest will find better ways to sell its product through sports sponsorship efforts.


Mainline campaign

NFL sponsorship

NHL sponsorship

Client: Southwest Airlines
Vice president of marketing: Joyce Rogge
Director of advertising: Cynthia Hill
Senior manager of sports and licensing: Christy Hall
Agency: GSD&M, Austin, Texas

Creative directors: Brent Ladd
Steve Miller
Brian Brooker
Holland Henton
Copywriter: Christopher Staub Brian Brooker
Art director: Brett Stiles Holland Henton
Account manager: Amy Carpenter Audrey Moss
Production company: M-80 @radical media
Director: Tenney Fairchild Frank Todaro
Editor: John Hopp (Jigsaw) Dick Gordon (Mad River)
Sound: None Amber Music


James H. Harris ( is CEO of the strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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Marketing and Sponsorship, NFL, NHL

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