Southwest Airline’s “Transfarency” campaign embodies the company’s no surprise approach to fees, having a sense of humor and ultimately, connecting with their customers.
By Nona Phinn
Autotune, crowdfunding, google, selfie, hashtag and tweet — these words share a commonality. All were new terms when they hit the scene and were so frequently used by pop culture they became infused in the English language. They each received the honor of being recognized as actual words as they were officially added to the English dictionary. We can now thank Southwest Airlines for what might be a new expansion of our vocabulary.
In October of last year, the airline introduced us to “Transfarency”, which the company defines as a philosophy in which customers are treated honestly and fairly, and low fares actually stay low — no unexpected bag fees, change fees or hidden fees. This is what Southwest has always believed and what the airline has now done is given it a name.
“Transfarency” is a summation of our philosophy and everything that Southwest stands for,” explains Anne Murray, Senior Director of Marketing at Southwest Airlines. Southwest first came to life on the back of a napkin, vowing to be bold and different amongst the other airlines in the industry. This was the premise on which Southwest began operating in 1971, as the only airline providing intrastate service at a time when most travelers opted to drive if their travels weren’t taking them across state lines. “We started out different and we want to remain different from the rest of the industry,” advocates Murray.
Differences that, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, have made the airline the nation’s largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded. Today, Southwest flies to 97 destinations in the U.S. and seven international locations. During peak flying times, Southwest operates more than 3,900 flights daily. They do so with more than 49,000 employees caring for more than 100 million passengers annually. With numbers like this, no wonder Southwest had plenty to celebrate in 2014 when the company revealed its heart to the world.
Today, most of us are familiar with the bold and dynamic heart that is coupled with the Southwest name. When it launched, Murray says for the company it was about “being able to show the world what our brand has become and not turning away from what it has been.” The airline had just completed its acquisition of Airtran Airways, which added international destinations to Southwest’s repertoire and in the same year, the abolishment of the Wright Amendment (an amendment that restricted nonstop flights from Dallas Love Field airport to destinations within Texas and neighboring states) had taken place. With plenty to be excited about, this new visual identity was not about walking away from the old but more about reminding individuals why Southwest is so unique.
The heart for Southwest is everything. It’s a symbol the airline feels best tells its story. The company uses it to depict how it does business, how it treats customers and how it acts. “It’s how we behave not just as individuals but individuals that make up the company called Southwest,” explains Murray. The airline is committed to connecting with its customers and helping to connect customers with what is important to Southwest.
A key way that Southwest shows it’s different from other airlines is by showing that the company’s beliefs align with the beliefs of its passengers. Southwest understands the customer’s expectations and agrees. As the airline industry began to add baggage fees and all the other airline carriers followed suit, Southwest said “no.” They believed that taking bags on travel is a necessity and should be something that comes with the price of a ticket. Murray tells us, “From the beginning we didn’t think this was right. We think this is core and should be a part of what you get. You just might need some clothes.”
This alignment with customer beliefs has been critical to the airline’s success. As Southwest took on its bold, new look, they began to look for ways to clearly articulate the sum of all value they bring to the industry and to the marketplace as a whole. The concept of Transfarency fit just perfectly for them, by highlighting the airline’s low fares and no hidden fees and its desire to have fun with bringing this concept to market. Transfarency goes back to the heart of the airline — a transparent company offering low fares and no hidden fees, no hidden anything. Murray describes, “Our industry has become not a surprise and delight moment but a surprise and cringe moment.” She paints a great picture of showing up to the airport to check in and being blindsided by additional fees or having to pay for extras that one might expect to come with the cost of a ticket. “This is the opposite of what Southwest stands for. People want a great price to get them from point A to point B as well as great service and that’s who we are.”
We started out different and we want to remain different from the rest of the industry.”
Southwest has developed a number of creative initiatives in order to bring Transfarency to life. They take great pride in the commercials featuring Southwest employees exemplifying incredible acting skills and showcasing great dance moves. Another place to encounter the company’s employees is on the Transfarency website where quizzes and educational content around hidden fees are used to raise public awareness of the company’s new term and the importance of what it means. Every employee is shown having a bit of fun, choosing not to be mean spirited towards the competition but instead just “poking fun” at their way of doing things. The use of employees in advertising is another key part of the company’s strategy of being transparent. Passengers are given the opportunity to meet employees they will fly with when they choose to fly Southwest, get a taste of who they are, their personalities and are able to connect with trusted faces who represent the brand.
Transfarency is bigger than a campaign for Southwest. It has become a part of the fabric of this airline. All of Southwest’s messaging is infused with this perfectly descriptive term. “For instance, we might be talking about our rewards program and you wonder what a loyalty program has to do with Transfarency. Well, the fact that we don’t have blackout dates is another point of differentiation,” Murray clarifies. “So, we’ll make a strong message to ensure that the customer knows that is a unique point of difference with the Southwest rewards program. Our sign off of that message is ‘That’s Transfarency. No hidden surprises.’”
Transfarency is also helping to shape the company’s engagement strategy. With the use of the hashtag, #FeesDon’tFly, Southwest encourages passengers who select to fly with a competitor to talk about their not so happy experiences through its social media channels. Here Southwest is creating a space for passengers to take a stand against the airline industry all while still having some fun. Stories that detail hidden or extra fees charged by other airlines are associated with the Southwest #FeesDon’tFly hashtag. For example, one passenger posted a message about being charged an additional $200 for a name mistake on their ticket while others tweeted about how much extra they had to pay for checking in baggage and seat selection. Each of these stories are read with a tone of regret and an assurance that their next flight will be with #SWA.
For those who do fly Southwest, #FeesDon’tFly is also used to depict the wonderful customer service they received and share some of the great ways the airline bent over backwards to help them in some tough spots. These stories mainly focus on how the passenger was not charged for accommodations and/or modifications that needed to be made. Also highlighted are the extras that came with the flight that the competition has decided over the years to make obsolete. “It’s interesting, hashtags usually trend for 24 hours and then they are gone. This one had staying power because it spoke to the power that exists with our public. They are taking a stand and saying, ‘I don’t have to put up with airlines that don’t fly the way I expect them to,’” informs Murray, “and there is an answer and it’s Southwest.”
Southwest has found that the airline’s ability to stand its ground and not cave into the pressure of following the trends is earning it new passengers every day. Murray calls it inspiring. They see customers leave one airline and come fly with Southwest because of the feeling of being mistreated and the need of wanting to do business with a company that aligns with their way of thinking. For Southwest, this goes beyond the price of a ticket. The airline expends a great deal of effort ensuring that this national brand (that’s going international) feels like home to its passengers. “Being that heart of the community to every community we serve is the goal,” explains Murray. To reach this goal, Southwest is an active member of the community. Initiatives such as supporting active military and their families as well as aiding individuals with medical needs sit high on the company’s priority list. Southwest has vowed that the initiatives they are involved in are those that are near and dear to the community’s heart and its own.
Murray finds it tough to imagine anyone who would want to do business with a company that doesn’t stand for the same things they do. At Better Business Bureau, we are finding that same thing to be true.
What’s next for Transfarency? It’s going international. Southwest will take the leap and begin sharing its new word with customers outside the U.S. With this next bold move, we’ll hope to see Transfarency added to more than just the English dictionary.