What do the most popular TED talks have in common with some Southwest Airlines safety briefings?

Let's go to the transcripts.

A while back, I analyzed the full transcripts of the top 25 most popular TED talks. It turns out that one word appeared far more often than you might expect.

The word was: "Laughter."

It wasn't that the speakers were actually saying the word; it's that the transcripts included it to indicate that the audience laughed in response to something the speakers said. 

There were 380 "laughter" notations across 25 talks, which works out to nearly "a laugh a minute."

OK, now let's look at the Southwest flight attendant safety briefings.

One of these went a bit viral on TikTok recently. This happens fairly often, mostly due to all the corny jokes and quips Southwest flight attendants are encouraged to include. If you've flown Southwest, I'll bet you know some of these:

  • There's a joke about what to do in the event of a water landing (the joke has to do with the fact that the flight's route, from Houston to San Antonio, is 100 percent overland).
  • There's a joke about how if you're traveling with more than one child and the oxygen masks drop, you should put on your own mask and then assist your children in order of "future earning potential."
  • There's even a joke about how it's OK to stuff a fake Gucci purse under the seat in front of you, because, "we all know if that was a real Gucci, you'd be flying Delta."

Sure enough, I counted the "laughter" breaks in this 3-minute video, much like we did with the TED talks. There are 11 such breaks; maybe 12 if you want to be a bit more lenient in defining "laughter" than I was.

OK. So, why does this matter? I think that word, "laughter" is an analytic indication of two things that give Southwest an advantage: culture and emotions.

Because the airline industry is basically a commodity industry, but if you look at the individual airlines' cultures and marketing efforts, clear differentiations emerge.

One of those key differentiations has to do with how the big players try to make customers feel about them, given that so many customers make decisions based on emotions, rather than pure cost-benefit analysis. For example:

Any of these could be effective, and Southwest's competitors clearly think that they are. Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines had embraced this quirky, humorous ethos from its very beginning as a company dating to 1971.

As the company's vice-president of culture and engagement, Whitney Eichinger put it:

"At Southwest, our customers know that fun is woven into everything we do. For more than 50 years, our employees have treated customers with our famous Southwest hospitality that makes taking a trip so memorable.

Whether we're weaving some jokes into our inflight announcements, conducting a wedding mid-air, celebrating a customer's first flight, or leading a toast to a group who just closed a deal, Southwest meets our customers where they are in their journey and I think that's what helps sets us apart from our competitors."

Look, to paraphrase Shakespeare, I come to analyze and learn from Southwest Airlines, not to praise it. 

But if Southwest gets an advantage from having developed this kind of brand feeling, I think we're seeing the results now. The airline has taken a lot of criticism for having canceled thousands of flights -- although to be fair, as I write this, it was Delta Air Lines that had the most cancelations during Memorial Day weekend so far.

Yet, I think the "laughter," and the "fun" factor gives Southwest a degree of inoculation. 

As a result, for every customer complaint about delays or cancelations, Southwest's social media feeds remain filled with customers praising Southwest flight attendants, or thanking them for doing things like making a toilet paper birthday cake (not edible, obviously) for a passenger celebrating a milestone birthday.

Or else, of course, the viral flight attendant videos.

Granted, Southwest isn't the only big brand that tries to work humor and fun into its brand image. It's a tried and effective strategy. 

But, as I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, the great thing about the airline industry is that it offers a never-ending parade of case studies that you can learn from and apply in your business.

And, if Southwest can gain an advantage by becoming the "fun and friendly" player among its competitors, perhaps your company can do something similar. And that's nothing to laugh at.