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Southwest Hit By Tragedy

The recent death of a Southwest Airlines passenger was not only tragic, but it was also highly unusual for an entire industry (let alone an airline), especially when you consider the lack of airline-related deaths over the past several years. Accidents happen, but considering the sheer volume of flights that are flown each day, one death out of hundreds of millions is what is known as a outlier.

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But that hasn't stopped the company from voluntarily grounding planes and making a series of unscheduled (and costly) maintenance checks in the name of public safety and brand management. Indeed, despite the airline's immediate and affirmative response to the problem, bookings are down anywhere from one to three percent this fiscal quarter. This is in contrast with other airlines which are predicting revenue gains of as much as 5% during the same period.

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What's the lesson? There appear to be several. Americans are an emotional, reactionary bunch of people who tend to blow things out of proportion. Isolated incidents tend to get an inordinate amount of attention in this age of hyper-connectivity. Media, both traditional and social, have a profound effect on shaping consumer behaviors and attitudes. And even if marketers act according to best practices, there still might be a negative affect on the brand, at least in the short-run. In this case, marketers at Southwest acted in a zeitgeist-appropriate manner, and in doing so are demonstrating that they will do everything in their power to fix the problem even if there is no evidence that a systemic one actually exists. This is not the way it used to be.

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Starbucks recently made a similar move after an isolated incident occurred at a single point in time at a single store. But it went viral. Indeed, Southwest must now make efforts that in previous times would have been considered overkill, to convince the public that all of its planes are safe. It does appear to this observer that over-reacting is now the expected reaction in contemporary marketing. Nevertheless, this is the new reality, and the brand must be protected at all costs.

Discussion:  Does this incident make you less likely to fly Southwest? If so, what can Southwest do to regain your confidence?

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