Ah, Southwest Airlines. It's the most-loved airline in the United States, according to most surveys. Part of why is that when it's also the best airline at marketing and customer relations.

For proof, take a look at what happened to Southwest's brand image this year, after after a tragic accident aboard a a Southwest Airlines 737 in which passenger Jennifer Riordan was killed. Understandably it took a hit--but it's already 100 percent recovered.

There are two measurements we can point to verify it, both coming from British marketing research agency YouGov.

First, YouGov compiles a "purchase consideration score" for many big brands. Here's how Southwest's purchase consideration score has changed this year:

  • On April 1, just before the tragedy: 41 percent of customers surveyed said they'd consider flying with Southwest
  • On May 1, just after the accident, the number fell to 31 percent.
  • By November 1, seven months afterward: Southwest is back at 44 percent.

Separately, YouGov compiles a buzz score, which is a measurement of how much people recall hearing positive news about it versus negative news about a brand. The higher the number the better:

  • April 1: Southwest has a buzz score of 13. That's good.
  • May 1: After the accident, and weeks of news about it, it dropped to minus-20, meaning significantly more people had heard bad news about Southwest than good news.
  • By November 1, however: Southwest is all the way back where it started, at 13.

In other words, a 100 percent recovery. We'll give you one more statistic too, which is the percentage of Americans who say they have a positive view of Southwest. Southwest beats out every other U.S. airline:

  • Southwest Airlines: 47 percent positive
  • Delta Air Lines: 43 percent positive
  • American Airlines: 42 percent positive
  • JetBlue: 37 percent positive
  • United Airlines: 36 percent positive

So what's the secret? Why is Southwest, even after this incident, ranked so much higher than every other airline in the United States?

I'd suggest it has to do with two things: First, literally decades of good branding--and second, the smart, simple strategy that Southwest followed immediately after the accident.

Good branding--how about the idea that Southwest is now the only U.S. airline offering free checked bags? Of course, bags aren't really free, they're just bundled into your ticket.

But it's a nice pitch, and it also means no Southwest passenger ever goes viral complaining about having to pay extra at the last minute to check bags.

Meantime, check out what Southwest did in the minutes and days after the tragedy last April--steps that not every airline would take:

  1. Immediately offered a video apology and condolence statement from the airline's CEO, Gary Kelly. Note the key words there: "video apology." He took responsibility, and did so immediately, and on camera. No hiding behind a press release.
  2. Gave every passenger aboard a total of $5,000 in cash and a $1,000 travel voucher for Southwest, with no strings attached--meaning they didn't reportedly ask passengers to give up any rights. The total cost here was more than $1 million, but the immediate goodwill it meant was priceless.
  3. Worked hard to put the focus on the pilots, cabin crew, and passengers. This is not easy to do, although Southwest benefited from the fact that the plane's captain, Tammie Jo Shults​, had compelling personal story. She'd been one of the U.S. Navy's first female fighter pilots before flying commercial.

It's why people were talking about the heroism aboard the flight, and the human side of the airline--and not, for example, the lawsuits and allegations about whether Southwest had maintained the engines on the aircraft effectively.

Contrast this with what happened a year earlier, when a United Airlines passenger was dragged off a flight, or when other airlines have suffered other big, negative headlines, and reacted defensively.

I'm thinking of United again (sorry, United!), when a flight attendant forced a passenger to put her dog in an overhead bin. The dog died, and another passenger made it her mission to ensure that the story went viral afterward.

It wasn't just a nightmare public relations incident for United. It literally led to a new law--a provision in the aviation bill that President Trump signed last month that makes it illegal to put a dog in an overhead bin

Not Southwest, though. Once more we see that they're the one airline that truly takes to heart the Maya Angelou quote about how people don't remember what you do them or what you say to them--but they remember how you make them feel.

And as a result, according to YouGov, in just seven months the completely put the accident behind them, "implying a full recovery in terms of potential revenue."

Published on: Nov 10, 2018
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