Southwest Airlines, you might say, isn’t just a Company founded “at” Love (Dallas’ Love Field Airport, where the airline first took off in 1971), it also is a Company founded “with” love. Nearly everywhere you look at Southwest, this becomes evident. From its “LUV” ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange to the heart in the center of the official corporate logo, in fact, the love theme has been present in Southwest’s advertising and marketing programs, its hiring efforts, its charitable choices, and even its aircraft paint schemes for more than 30 years.
To understand how this all started, perhaps a little history is in order. After announcing their plans to begin an intrastate Texas airline in the late 1960s, Southwest’s founders immediately were drawn into a series of legal battles. Undaunted, the upstart airline charged ahead. But the going wasn’t easy. Court proceedings take time and money – two scarce commodities for any fledgling company, let alone an airline that didn’t yet own a plane, and hadn’t carried a single customer.
As a result of these legal struggles, however – most of which Southwest eventually won – something interesting occurred. A unique culture was formed. A business idea became a shared quest, bonding together a band of less than 200 Employees. To establish an identity and set their airline apart from the crowd, these early Southwest Employees sought to develop a unique personality for their Company. In other words, if this airline were a person, what type would she be? The answers came easily: Independent. Free spirited. Irreverent. Sexy. Fun. A heart was incorporated into the airline’s first logo, and Flight Attendants took to the skies in hot pants and go-go boots. The “Love Airline” was born.
The advertising budget in Southwest’s first year of operations was $700,000 – half of which was spent in the first month. Two-page color ads sprang up in daily newspapers, often using the word “love” as many as 15 or 20 times. Early press releases referred to Southwest’s small fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft as “Love Jets.” Customers could walk into the airport and purchase their Southwest tickets from “Love Machines,” while inflight snacks were called “Love Bites.” “Love Stamps,” which could be redeemed for “Love Potions” (or drinks, for the uninitiated), were distributed to all Customers. LUV definitely was in the air.
Although times have changed over the past three decades, and the word “love” largely has disappeared from Southwest ads and marketing efforts, the emotion’s concept has become intertwined in the very fabric of the Company. Each year, Southwest holds the “LUV Classic” golf tournament to benefit the airline’s primary charity, The Ronald McDonald House – known as “The House that Love Built.” During the Gulf War, Southwest sponsored a program (on Valentine’s Day, fittingly) that gave thousands of Customers and Employees the opportunity to send messages of love and support to our troops overseas. The program’s name? LUVGRAMS.
In the corporate world, this outward expression of a rather private emotion is not a common thing. But then, Southwest has never been a common company. “We are not afraid to talk to our people with emotion,” Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher told a gathering of Employees last year. “We are not afraid to tell them ‘I love you.’ Because we do.”
This article appeared in Spirit, the former in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines.