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Southwest’s Ironic and Appropriate New Ad Campaign

Has everyone seen Southwest’s latest ad campaign? I’ll guess not since the new 60 second spot debuted in the unwatched first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. So, take a minute (literally) and watch it here before we discuss:

Does anyone else see the delightful irony in this ad? This is a brand ad. It’s supposed to warm the cockles of your heart so that you relate to this airline. It is supposed to help you connect with a strong brand identity. As the press release says, “The campaign reinvigorates the Southwest Airlines brand and reveals its story as one that people may not perceive it to be.”

What’s so ironic about that? The “brand reveal” is accomplished with a soundtrack, the song Some Nights by fun. I’ll just give you a little snippet of the chorus:

Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
Woah oh oh (What do I stand for?)
Woah oh oh (What do I stand for?)
Most nights I don’t know anymore…

Do people just pick songs because they sound catchy instead of reading the words? This ad is just pure… bleh. It says nothing to me. This could be for Southwest or any other legacy airline. (In fact, the lofty goofiness reminds me of plenty of legacy airline ads of history.) Or it could be for a healthcare company, even better, it’s like watching an ad that sells trucks. Seriously, just put the Bob Seger song “Like a Rock” over this ad and you’ll think they’re selling Chevys. Just listen to some of these lofty words in the ad that really don’t say much:

  • “people who find their own path, chart their own course, who never stop moving forward”
  • “the American dream doesn’t just happen, it’s something you have to work for”
  • “never finished, never satisfied, and we never stop looking for a better way”

Is this really Southwest? This is an airline that knows how to market itself. Or at least, it used to know. My favorite commercial of all time came from this airline many years ago. Way back in the 1980s, the CEO of America West, Ed Beauvais said he thought travelers would be embarrassed to fly Southwest. How did the airline respond? CEO Herb Kelleher filmed a spot with him having a paper bag on his head. He told travelers Southwest would give them a paper bag if they were embarrassed. They could use that bag to hold all the money they’d save.

That’s not what we’ll ever see from Southwest today. Then again, I suppose it’s a much tougher task these days because the chorus of that song is true. Southwest doesn’t seem to really know what it stands for.

It’s no longer the low fare leader, though the brand halo still survives. A recent study shows that just comparing airfare (not baggage), Southwest was more expensive than competitors 60 percent of the time. It still sticks to the no change fee, no bag fee policy but it has made a lot of noise about how it needs to add new fees. Just this month, Southwest CFO Tammy Romo said “I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to be a change fee. But we’ll certainly start moving in the directions to tighten some of the restrictions on our lowest priced fares sometime in 2013.”

Meanwhile, the airline has finally begun codesharing with wholly-owned subsidiary AirTran, further muddying the waters. If you buy a ticket from Southwest, you have no bag fee or change fee. If you buy a ticket on AirTran for the exact same flights, you pay the bag fee and change fee. The exact same flights. Confused yet? You aren’t alone.

So what does Southwest stand for? I’m not even sure the airline knows. And that may very well be why it’s putting out ad campaigns that say… nothing. To be fair, future spots are supposed to focus on the inflight product and on Rapid Rewards, so those might be better. But this first commercial from the airline’s new partnership with TBWA\Chiat\Day is not off to a great start.

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