Here’s to Herb, the great Brand Builder

Herb Kelleher died this month. It was not news that dominated the media in the way that, say, Steve Jobs’ death did. Herb’s profile never matched other modern day brand builders like Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But he was, in my opinion, every bit as influential and pioneering as any and more so than many.  Southwest Airlines, of which Herb was the CEO and then Chairman for most of its and his life, has inspired businesses all around the world. It is the world’s largest low-budget airline and the only airline to be consistently profitable every year for 45 years. Through several oil crises, ‘stagflation’, 9/11, 6 recessions and the GFC, it never made a loss. But it’s not its commercial success that makes Southwest an iconic brand and Herb a real brand genius. It is its business ethos that has made it an essential case study for almost every business school in the world and a ‘must visit’ for all Executive Leadership ‘tours’.  Southwest was an ‘experience brand’ before the term ‘brand experience’ was coined. It was a ‘disruptor’ with genuine ‘purpose’ half a century before those words became commonplace today. Herb believed in time-honoured business principles, the relevance of which have only increased over time and which most companies aspire to today.

Herb’s fundamental beliefs inspired Harvard Business Professors to develop a concept called the Service Profit Chain. It’s a neat piece of business logic which argues that if you run your business with a clear line of sight to your customer, recognising your purpose is to provide them with value, and empower your employees to deliver that value, then you will be rewarded with increased productivity, greater customer loyalty and rising revenues and profits.  Herb explained it even more simply. “The business of business is people”, he repeatedly reminded everyone he could. Customers, employees, suppliers were all people to him and they had to be treated with respect if you wanted their loyalty.

Great brands do three big things well. They stand up for something meaningful in people’s lives, they stand out by dramatically differentiating their offer and they stand firm by building a culture that keeps the business true to its purpose and promise. Herb’s legacy is that Southwest practices all three continuously.

Herb believed in ‘Standing Up’

Herb argued that every great business needed to have an inspiring mission and values (a ‘purpose’ as we now call it), a compelling value proposition and a distinctive personality. The mission had to be about the difference you’d make to your customers. It had to be timeless and unchangeable. Replying to consultants who told him his mission statement had been around for a long time and needed to be refreshed, he replied with Texan wit “well that’s like saying Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes have been around for a long time and we’ll kind of refresh them and bring them up to date”.  He also believed it had to be written in English that anyone could understand and in words that would inspire. “Not Corporate Speak which is not only boring but hardly effective.” Its mission is “dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit”. It describes the qualities they seek in their people as “a warrior’s spirit and a servant’s heart”.

Herb believed in ‘Standing Out’

Southwest’s value proposition is based on 5 factors: low-cost, punctuality, speed, convenience and, above all, friendly service. It’s often said that Ryan Air copied the Southwest proposition – except they cut out the friendly service. And it’s the friendly service that is the enduringly distinctive part of the airline. Cabin crews are asked to bring their personality to work and to entertain their customers on the short flights. You Tube videos abound of Southwest crews performing the safety announcements like stand-up comedians. One cabin member was famed for bringing her guitar on board. If the first 4 of those factors were the reasons to ‘buy’ Southwest, the 5th was the reason to return repeatedly. Outstanding service is what has made Southwest stand out.

Herb believed in ‘Standing Firm’

At Southwest, culture is king. “Esprit” said Herb “gets things done, well and fast”. The business is relentless in hiring the right people and firing only when the disciplinary record is intolerable. Southwest has never laid off a single employee in 45 years.  Ideas that are now common practices were pioneered by Southwest. Culture committees, getting the best employees to do the hiring, holding group interviews, using playful techniques or questions to understand people’s attitudes and motivations, allowing all employees no matter their status to contact the CEO directly, ‘management by walking around’. All of these and more built its phenomenal culture. Working for Southwest is so desirable that it is statistically harder to get a job there than to get a place at Harvard or Yale.

In our new book, Myths Of Branding, we tell this story about Herb.

A customer wrote to Southwest complaining in strong language about the behaviour of one of its staff. Southwest takes its responsibility to its customers and its employees very seriously. So it did not take the complaint lightly and investigated thoroughly. Not only did it conclude that there was no case to answer and that the employee had behaved appropriately, Southwest went further. It wrote to the customer, informing them of the outcome of the investigation, dismissing the complaint and told the customer that they would no longer be welcome on any Southwest flight.

Herb understood the ambiguity that a great brand has to do the right thing for its customers but that not every customer is right.  He also knew that as a leader his job was to put his people first, if they had done the right thing he would back them all the way.

If you want to hear the man himself, you could do worse than watch this video.

Here’s to Herb. The Great Brand Builder. A down-to-earth man who built a legend in the air.

Myths of Branding is published by Kogan Page

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