The Illusion of Simplicity

Can you capture the essence of a brand in a single word? A couple of days ago, a friend in Dallas raised this question, citing Southwest Airlines as a case in point. His perspective is that, early on, the leadership at Southwest seems to have landed on the idea that flying wasn’t very much fun, and they set out to change that. So, according to my friend, they chose fun as the essence of the brand, and the story just took off from there. (Pun, I suppose, intended.)

Of course fun, by itself, is not a story. Without conflict there is no story, and our experience is that without story there is no way to build an emotional relationship between the brand and its audience. Given that Southwest Airlines had, at least for the first couple of decades, a very unique and resonant relationship with its customers, I started thinking about where the conflict energy came from to power its story. The word that most frequently sits opposite fun in brand stories is responsible. And responsible versus fun certainly makes sense as the driving energy for the story of an airline because, no matter how much fun you have doing it, running an airline carries with it an immense weight of responsibility.

It is important to understand that Southwest could tell a compelling story, while seeming to put all its emphasis on fun, only because it powerfully cued its responsible energy at the same time, but in less overt ways. First, Southwest—even in its name but certainly through its actions—suggested an affinity for salt-of-the-earth values, plain dealing and equality that seemed highly responsible. In addition, a deep obligation to act responsibly is baked into the airline category. If Southwest had seemed blasé about safety or if its early safety record had been anything but sterling, its story would have collapsed. Instead, Southwest focused with pride on its flawless safety record and its young fleet of aircraft. So I think my friend was partly right. Southwest did get a lot of traction from using fun as a simple anchor for a lot of its actions and communications. But without the implicit conflict between fun and responsible, the brand story would have been shallow and would have gotten old quickly.

What Southwest did in air travel is similar to what Geico accomplished in insurance. While Geico may, on the surface, seem to be entirely playful, the brand story is actually powered by a conflict between serious and playful. Geico can get a lot of story energy from that conflict while projecting ridiculously playful behavior because the very idea of insurance carries so much of the serious energy. And just as the Southwest story would not have survived a casual attitude toward safety, Geico would lose traction quickly if it did not seem serious in the way it handles claims.

Both Geico and Southwest built their stories as challenger brands, and, in part, this is an illustration of the kind of story energy a challenger brand can get by playing against the conventions of its category. When a brand ignores or denies the conflict, however, and tries instead to focus on a single word, a lot of energy can drain out of the story. Consider Volvo during the decades when it worked hard to own safety. A car brand can certainly use the conflict of safety versus freedom to power a very compelling story. And starting in the 1960s, Volvo did have a compelling story built on the legendary slogan Drive it like you hate it. That story got a lot of additional traction because, during the decades following the Second World War, freedom was deeply baked into the idea of owning a car (See the USA in your Chevrolet). But by the 1980s, Volvo was using safety more as a single-pointed theme than as one side of a conflict. As a result, Volvo owned the position, but the brand felt kind of shallow, and its relationship with the car-buying audience didn’t have much emotional depth.

I understand how attractive it can be to try to organize a complex marketing effort around a single word. It can work, at least for the short term, because any clear organizing principle is better than none. But, at best, this kind of simplicity leaves a lot of value on the table, and, at worst, it can make the brand vulnerable when circumstances change. In fact, I think Southwest is currently suffering somewhat from its very success. It feels as if the brand is less certain about how to use fun now that Southwest is among the largest domestic carriers. To me, that suggests that the brand never really understood how to use its conflict in a strategic way.

If you can think of examples of other successful brands that generated powerful story energy by taking a strong, simple theme and smashing it against the prevailing energy of their category, I would love hear them.