by Matt Kamer

When it comes to brand building and reputation management it’s important to remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Brands are built over time, based on a history of a product’s purchase, usage or consumption, along with customer experiences, customer service and customer communication.

So since my personal-favorite airline, Southwest, had, shall we say, a challenging holiday season, I’ve been curious about how their brand reputation would rebound. You’ll recall this past December, extreme weather forced Southwest to cancel more than 16,700 flights nationwide, wrecking holiday travel plans for millions of passengers and causing a ripple effect of chaos across the country’s airports and the industry in general. The one-time industry darling airline reported a rare quarterly loss – $220 million loss in the fourth quarter – with the press and pundits calling it “the worst airline meltdown in the history of the U.S. airline industry,” and wondering “Can Southwest rebound,” to even “Can the company survive?”

While the impact has stretched into 2023 ($159 million loss in Q1), the signs are there for Southwest’s rebound. The airline’s Q1 revenue outpaced the same time period last year by 21% and it’s forecasting a profitable second quarter. How? Fortunately, Southwest has decades of good flying on its side, and hundreds of thousands of passengers, many you’d call loyalists, with a track record of high satisfaction over time. Yes, in the heat of the meltdown, the company did attempt crisis communications, taking ownership of mistakes made, offering to cover stranded passengers’ reasonable travel expenses, and the like. But it’s the long-term satisfaction and loyalty built up over the years that will see Southwest through this challenge.

Southwest’s future prospects are bolstered by a laser focus on performance since the start of the year resulting in the airline climbing four spots to no. 2 in the ranking for on-time performance in January and February 2023. And, data shows that more than 50 percent of travelers affected by the December glitch have already booked with Southwest again.* 

Perhaps most telling is the American Customer Satisfaction Index which measures input from 500,000 consumers to analyze customer satisfaction with more than 400 companies in 45 industries. In an April 2023 report, ACSI reports Southwest not only held on to its second-place customer satisfaction rank among U.S. airlines, it actually gained a full percentage point for customer satisfaction for the year on the whole.**

It’s a good reminder that committing to the long game – with a continual focus on brand and reputation building over time – can help your organization weather even a most difficult storm.

*Source: Southwest Airlines Q1 investor report