Southwest Airlines: Protecting Brand Equity
In the face of an increasingly competitive and consolidating market, Southwest Airlines sought to expand its footprint and enter key East Coast markets dominated by legacy carriers or low-cost competitors that had a stronghold on gate space and landing rights. Southwest had a history of independence and organic growth, but recognized that it would have to make an acquisition in order to grow quickly and finally gain access to these crucial routes. With Atlanta, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan as primary targets for Southwest, low-cost competitor AirTran Airways quickly came into focus.
One primary issue was keeping the acquisition plans a secret. Although Southwest has a large and capable communications staff, confidentiality was essential until the final days before the announcement. To augment its inner circle of staff working on the deal, Southwest’s top management turned to Dix & Eaton as a strategic partner in preparing for announcement day.
Because Southwest had never completed such a major acquisition and an earlier effort to buy Frontier Airlines had fallen through, the stakes were high. Knowing transparency was important post-announcement, Southwest placed a premium on communications with internal and external audiences regarding the rationale and mechanics of this large acquisition in alignment with Southwest’s unique company culture.
Dix & Eaton’s role was to support the Investor Relations, Operations and Communications teams to address needs for specific document generation and expertise to make all audiences, including employees, more comfortable in an organization unfamiliar with a large integration project. A key strategic initiative was to create a distinct website to announce and provide an informational archive for the many customers, investors and media who would require constant updates.
Dix & Eaton established a dedicated team of writers and Web design professionals to support website development and content creation for announcement day launch. The D&E team also worked on the nuts and bolts of the announcement, creating and refining news releases, talking points, messages to employees and investor communications pieces to support the executive team. Members of the team were on the ground to provide communications support prior to and on announcement day, including communications coaching for media relations teams unaccustomed to messaging for this type of announcement.
In the end, Southwest was able to maintain confidentiality throughout the process up to announcement day while still being thoroughly prepared to make the announcement in person and online. Southwest’s messages clearly resonated in each story produced and the acquisition was well-received without the typical overhang of leaks that can compromise the integrity of an announcement. Southwest had a head start on planning for integration of the two companies by receiving counsel on likely hurdles and primary objectives for the integration progress.