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GSD&M Brand Purpose 4A’s

Southwest Airlines and GSD&M on their 42-year partnership: ‘It’s a lot like a marriage’

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By The Drum, Editorial

October 25, 2023 | 5 min read

Welcome back to Convene. Challenge. Change., an editorial partnership between The Drum and the 4A’s where we explore the foundations of successful partnerships between brands and agencies. In this installment, we take a look at the history between Southwest Airlines and GSD&M and the secret sauce behind that partnership’s longevity.

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What’s the key to a successful long-term business partnership? According to Southwest Airlines vice-president and head of marketing Jonathan Clarkson and GSD&M CEO Duff Stewart, the answer is simple: sharing a vision and adhering to it unwaveringly.

In a recent conversation with Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s, Clarkson and Stewart candidly discussed the history of the 42-year partnership between their two brands and the critical factors that have enabled such a long and fruitful collaboration.

As Kaplowitz points out early on in the conversation, “It’s pretty rare in this industry for an agency and [a brand] to have a relationship for a decade, let alone over four decades.”

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The two brands first paired up in 1981, “when Southwest was a much simpler operation,” says Clarkson, only operating three aircraft across the same number of cities. (The airline now flies to 121 cities across 11 countries, according to its website.) Both Southwest and GSD&M also originated in Texas – they’re currently headquartered in Dallas and Austin, respectively – giving them, perhaps, a degree of comradery through their shared cultural identity. (Anyone who’s spent more than a couple of days in Texas will know what we mean.)

Southwest and GSD&M also “grew up together,” Stewart says. “Both companies are 52-years-old, and we’ve been partners for 42 [of those].”

Both Clarkson and Stewart point to Southwest’s steadfast commitment to prioritizing the needs of its customers, and GSD&M’s ongoing support of that core value, as being essential to the strong and extended union between the two brands. “As we’ve evolved, we’ve always put the customer first,” says Stewart. “Our agency partners in Austin have always fully understood that.”

Stewart adds that Southwest’s credo of the primacy of the customer aligns closely with his agency’s own core values: freedom and responsibility. “We’re [both] putting those people that we serve first – that’s the magic,” he says.

Representative of this ethical synergy is Southwest’s “Bags fly free” policy, launched in 2009, when, according to Stewart, the airline industry was facing economic pressure to find more sources of revenue, including charging fees for checked bags. “Our point of view was: that goes against the purpose of Southwest Airlines, which is to give people the freedom to fly,” Stewart says. In a telling example of how sticking to one’s code of ethics even through times of adversity can ultimately yield rewards, Stewart says that that campaign “resulted in a billion dollars in additional revenue and market share gain, because we understood what was on the minds of consumers, and we delivered to consumers.”

Echoing those thoughts, Clarkson adds that Southwest’s decision to not add bag fees at a time when such a move was becoming the norm across the airline industry can be traced back to a “social contract” with the brand’s customer-base – an “effective agreement” that the airline would prioritize people over potential profit.

Of course, no two brands – just like no two individuals – can hope to perfectly see eye-to-eye over more than four decades. There will be disagreements and growing pains; such is the nature of any human relationship. But the secret behind the partnership between Southwest and GSD&M, says Stewart, is the willingness on the part of both brands to stick to the driving purpose that brought them together in the first place. “It’s a lot like a marriage,” he says. “There are days when we’re in love with each other, and there are days when we’re pissed off at each other. But at the end of the day, we both realize that we care so much about this brand and the difference that it can make in consumers’ lives because we’re … giving those people the freedom to fly … And we might have different ways we want to think about it, but we all know where we’re going.”

Watch the full conversation in the video above.

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