Southwest Reveals a New Visual Identity, But You Better Not Call It a New Brand

It had been years since Southwest last had a media day, so I was surprised to see an invite come in the mail a few weeks ago. As we all know by now, the real reason for the event was to show off the airline’s new image. My reaction to the design itself wasn’t all that negative, but I still can’t understand why the airline felt this was needed. I think there’s more important work to do over there.

[Disclosure: Southwest paid for my flight to Dallas and my hotel]

Southwest began the day with a ceremony in stifling heat in a closed hangar. When the ceremony ended, the doors were pulled back and an airplane in a new livery was revealed. Here’s a 41 second video of the unveiling.

The, ahem, “heart” of the new look is in fact, a heart. Southwest has had a lot of logos over the years and the airline thought it needed a new, definitive symbol. (Up until this change, the airline had two logos that it still used – the winged heart and the departing airplane.) So it thought that it was time to start from scratch and do something new. This heart is going to be everywhere, including on the belly of each airplane. The goal is to make it an iconic logo like Apple’s; one where you don’t need to see the name of the company to know what it is.

Southwest Heart Logo

But Southwest didn’t actually want to start from scratch. It wanted to honor the past and the culture of the airline (which is why you aren’t supposed to call this a re-branding) and create something that would help emphasize what the airline stood for. Bob Jordan, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer said that basis for the new design was “our core values, low fares, and amazing employees delivering differentiated service to our customers.” Amazing employees? I can buy that, but I’m not so sure about that whole “low” fares thing these days.

Up to this point, I’m onboard. I like the idea of a recognizable logo, and the heart is an appropriate, simple symbol that looks good. But it could have been implemented into the airline’s existing livery and design and had the same effect. Southwest didn’t stop there, however.

Southwest Sans Font

First, it had a custom font created, called Southwest Sans. The font is meant to look more modern, and for now, it does. But it also fails to look distinctive in any way, and I expect it’ll end up dating more quickly than the old one, which I still think looks perfectly fine.

The colors were also changed. Canyon Blue is gone, replaced by the similar but brighter Bold Blue. In case you’re wondering, it’s accompanied by Warm Red, Sunrise Yellow, and Summit Silver. These will be used in everything from PowerPoint presentations to uniforms, and of course, the new livery.

The Southwest Tail

Since Southwest has had its name on its tail for more than 40 years, seeing the new tail with similar stripes but no wording looks oddly naked. The new colors make the airline look more leisure-focused. In fact, Spirit went with similarly-strong, primary colors when it changed its stripes to better align with its leisure target audience. Southwest, of course, is trying to become more and more business-friendly, so the new livery seems a bit contradictory.

That, however, is not the only contradiction we heard during the media days. We were repeatedly told how this was important to do, because so much has changed for the airline in 2014. (AirTran fully integrated, Wright Amendment lifted, beginning of international flights, etc.) Yet the airline insisted that this change be cost neutral. If there are any costs, then Southwest will force itself to reduce costs elsewhere to offset it. (If those costs could be cut anyway, however, then it’s still not really a cost neutral move.) For that reason, it will take 7 years before the fleet is fully painted. Airports will take 2 or 3 years.

Both Holly Hegeman from PlaneBusiness and later, Andrea Ahles from the Ft Worth Star-Telegram asked the right question in slightly different ways. If this is so important, then why not spend the money on getting it done sooner? The answer was that Southwest is a low cost airline so it needs to keep costs low. Still, if you think this is so important, then it should be worth spending on. Mixed messages.

As mentioned, I like the heart a lot, and I don’t mind the new livery, but the disappearance of that iconic red belly made me sad. I asked why the airline didn’t just keep the red belly, or as Herb Kelleher used to say, his red-bellied war birds. (You could still put a heart on it.) The answer was that only employees really identified with the red bellies, so they wanted something more distinctive (the heart). Maybe it’s just me, but I think Doug Parker at American is right. The livery is largely for the employees, so if they identify with the red belly, maybe you’d want to keep it.

Southwest Nose to Nose

With the new look, media day attendees were hoping for some more substance on the future of Southwest’s product and strategy. We didn’t get much of that. I was encouraged to hear the first acknowledgement that the new Evolve seats are simply not comfortable. They are working on fixing them with at least a new cushion and possibly more. But that was the extent of the news.

We were told that power ports are not being considered. With increasingly long flights expected (think about all that international expansion), these become even more important. But it’s not happening. And an extra legroom section? If it happens, it won’t be for years. As for free bags, the airline continues to very strongly say that it remains committed to the policy, despite it being hard to argue that at least a 2nd bag fee makes a ton of sense.

Southwest seems to want to serve everyone, but it’s hard to cater your product so broadly. That’s probably why the new identity focuses on love and customer service. It’s important and the airline should be proud, but it’s also pretty fluffy.

A new ad campaign is rolling out with this, and I thought it was quite good. A voiceover trying to hypnotize you to book at while staring into a turning engine? Hilarious. Another ad ending with “You can’t charge for smiles. Maybe that’s why other airlines stopped giving them away”? Very clever.

But one of the funniest lines of the day was a rejected tagline. “We’re 43. We’re from Dallas. It’s time for a facelift.” While funny, it does get to the, uh, heart of the matter. Southwest needs to work through a lot of issues as it reaches middle age. Who does it want to be? How will it compete? Heck, who does it even want to compete with? A 43-year old may think a facelift can solve all the problems in the world, but it never works. Maybe it’s time to see a shrink.

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