Aviation's Icon of Branding Is Laid To Rest

Today an legend in brand strategy is laid to rest. Herb Kelleher, who was formally educated as a lawyer, not a marketer, was part of a movement that turned marketing on its head.

Conceiving the company with his business partner in 1966 (on a cocktail napkin, of course), the pair began the airline in 1971. Turning a profit every year since 1973, Southwest has the industry’s longest run of profitability—even during periods when airline around them were going bankrupt. How?

Well, in part it was a relentless drive to reduce costs—he once saved $300,000 by removing three peanuts from every package. But just being the low-cost provider could not have pulled off the enduring profitability that Southwest enjoyed. 

In fact, Herb was among an elite cadre of CEO’s who early embraced and really helped define the philosophy of inside-out branding. 

While he was probably more likely to characterize his philosophy as ‘happy employees make happy customers and happy customers make happy shareholders,’ the effect of this way of thinking on truly successful branding is now clear.

Advocates of inside-out branding believe that for a brand to endure, it must reflect to the outside world the true values (and personality) found on the inside of the company. Bringing the brand to life at every point of customer contact begins with a brand culture that understands the promise and values the people who are going to deliver it. 

Herb intuitively understood this. Described as fun-loving and wickedly witty, he was also committed to the inherent value of each individual. “Whether you’re talking to the garbage man or the king, they are both very worthy people,” he said in the 2001 interview. He intentionally focused his 63,000 person workforce around the gold standard of customer service, institutionalizing The Golden Rule into the business.

While he credited late-night talks with his mother for helping develop his belief that each person carries the same value,  the result for Southwest was that he used this fundamental value system (plus his fun-loving nature) to build a brand that employees believed in—and they have radiated that belief for every one of the 40+ profitably years that the company has enjoyed. 

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