Earning Brand Loyalty

Southwest Airlines has carved out the position as the low-cost airlines and, with solid customer service, it shows that doesn't mean lowest-common-denominator value.Southwest Airlines has a brand promise of being the low-cost air carrier. It has reinforced that promise by not charging for checked bags.

A recent personal experience solidifies my perception that low-cost at Southwest Airlines doesn't mean lame service.

On a weekend flight through Oakland, California, my wife's and my bags were left on the tarmac in the rain as they were being loaded. Even though we have hard-sided bags, water seeped into the luggage through cloth seams, dampening dresses and suit pants. One of my wife's favorite suit jackets and skirt suffered color spotting.

Southwest Airlines provides a place on its website for complaints. I dutifully sent an email detailing what happened and the $100 dry cleaning bill that resulted. An automated response promised a reply within seven days. Frankly I had some doubts.

However, within a couple of days, a friendly Southwest Airlines employee called. She was empathetic and, after explaining the airline's policy, offered a generous amount of travel vouchers for the cost and hassle of dry-cleaning wet clothes.

We would have continued to fly Southwest Airlines regardless of the response, but now we will go out of our way to fly Southwest, even when we have a choice. That's what we marketers call brand loyalty.

The empathetic customer-relations representative mirrors the jovial, often funny airline attendants who jive up the mandatory safety announcements to get jaded or inattentive passengers to listen to them. Even the funky boarding process adds to the distinctive quality of flying Southwest Airlines.

Much has been said about the culture that underpins the airline, including an embrace of irreverence, which gives Southwest a definite brand personality. This is an airline with a Chief Apology Officer. If Jet Blue had such a position, he or she would be getting triple overtime.

But brand promises and personalities can be washed away by sloppy service or careless inconsideration. That's where brand loyalty is joined. If you live your brand promise and personality all the way down the line to giving a cheerful token of appreciation to a passenger with a bad suitcase day, you earn your stripes.

It is a reputation management lesson every business should remember and practice. A good classroom is to use the product or service frequently so you see how it performs.