Love is Brand

Blind faith in branding is on the rise again and it makes this marketer uneasy. But let’s save the cautionary tales for next week. This week is all about love.

Because if you love something, you’ve been branded. It’s not the product, the company, or the institution that gets branded, it’s the customer. We are the logo-wearing cattle. And we feel good about it. Pride, prestige, belonging, and individuality all come into play (if you can prompt feelings of belonging and individuality at the same time you’ve got it made). But the trump card is the ace of hearts.

In the throes of brand, as in the throes of love, one prefers something above all others of its kind. Questions of cost and convenience have little weight. The beloved’s shortcomings are endearing. Of course, some of us are more “brand-loyal” than others. Some of us are brand obsessives.

I love Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV, for Love Field in Dallas) so much, I always go to their website first. I visit friends who live somewhere Southwest flies more often than friends off their route map. Imbued with a strong sense of community by open seating, I exchange egalitarian glances with my fellow Southwest passengers in the pre-boarding line-up.

Those of us who have flown Southwest for a decade or more were branded when the “Southwest Effect”–the plunge in fares when the airline entered a market–was in full force. All interactions with the company were bracingly lively, the most astounding being the clowning around by gate agents, flight attendants, and pilots. Everyone, it seemed, was drinking the Kool-Aid (and eating the peanuts).

But what happens when an upstart brand matures? In 2011, Southwest acquired AirTran Airways for $1.4 billion. In television advertising that began last March, Southwest calls itself “America’s largest domestic airline.” Created by TBWA/Chiat/Day, Apple’s ad agency, this “Welcome Aboard” brand-image campaign has a polished, contemporary feel. To attract more affluent travelers, the agency has taken a scrappy brand mainstream, retaining the thread of employees who “never stop looking for a better way.” The ads cut from airline personnel to the entrepreneurial types who fly–or will now consider flying–Southwest.

It is a world away from the classic, faux-folksy ads by longtime agency GSD&M. I can hear 82-year-old founder Herb Kelleher cussing (all the way to the bank).

Well, I liked Woody Allen’s earlier, funnier movies better, but I still love the guy and go to his pictures, if less often. Southwest is counting on “brand equity” to keep me and thousands (if not millions) of hardcore loyalists flying when the fares are no longer a bargain, the frequent flyer program is more complicated, and the cockpit sound effects are only a memory. I suppose it’s not just Southwest Airlines that has changed. The world has changed, the country has changed. Indeed, we have changed.

Actually, I haven’t changed (ask anyone who knew me in high school). I still believe in love. And I still believe that a great brand–meaning not the logo but the distinctive essence of a product, a company, or an institution–can respond to a radically altered marketplace without losing the spark that made it great. In theory, this should be less difficult to accomplish in the nonprofit sector.

Think of museums, orchestras, chamber music ensembles, opera companies, theater companies, and dance companies you love (not rate highly, admire, or envy–love). Are there some that you loved in an earlier incarnation and love no longer? This is not always an issue of nostalgia. Kindly share and we will try to get to the bottom of the falling-out-of-brand phenomenon in next week’s post.

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