There’s a reason why all the “cracks” in the Southwest Airlines planes won’t hurt the airline at all: Because Southwest has a brand.
As we’ve said before in a detailed study a few years ago, Southwest is one of the few airlines that actually has any meaning in the marketplace. Therefore, it is another example of how we will forgive a brand if it has been meaningful to us.
Now, if this had happened to Delta or American, it would have been a different story. Because travelers have no emotional connection to those brands, the damaged aircrafts would give us another reason to ignore those brands.
Southwest has developed a position in the airline industry by focusing on low prices, no baggage fees and a model in which you line up in a kind of “first buy, first serve” order to nab a seat. It’s not my preferred way to fly, but the model and its operations are fulfillments of its “You are free to move about the country” brand.
The Southwest brand says that, now that you pay less, you can travel. With that brand, it is one of the few airlines to post increases in revenue over the last few years, although it probably won’t challenge the market leaders amid all the recent mergers.
But the power of brand is how you overcome communication crises. When Apple’s iPhone 4 had issues, nobody cared because Apple had a brand. If BP had a brand, even the justified outrage over the Gulf Coast oil spill would have been tempered.
Southwest (and Boeing) certainly need to take care of this issue (and, really, it’s a sign that airlines need to spend some money buying new planes and updating the old ones because most fleets are becoming outdated).
But having a brand means Southwest will weather this storm because, in a sense, it has already been forgiven.