Friday, April 22, 2016

Don’t Try to Pin This One on Southwest

The airline’s staff isn’t in LUV with management’s new emblems marking their years of service.

Southwest Airlines prides itself on its "warrior spirit.'' Now employees of the Dallas carrier are fighting mad about a hallmark of the corporate culture: the company's service-anniversary pin.

At airlines, a worker's years of service are more visible than, say, at a law firm, often displayed on a pin. A new pin design unveiled at Southwest earlier this year generated a "significant response'' from employees, the airline said in an internal message to workers.

"We listened, and we are going to give it another shot,'' Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly told workers in a regularly recorded message this week.

Prior versions of the service pin include (from top) a belt-buckle shape, from 1981 to 1985; a trio of slanted bars emblazoned with the company's name, from 1986 to 2001; and an emblem fashioned to look like pilot's wings, with a big heart in the middle, issued from 2001 through last year.

(Southwest Airlines)

Southwest, whose stock ticker symbol is LUV and calls itself the "LUV airline," has long incorporated the heart in its branding, from swizzle sticks and bags of peanuts handed out on flights to television and billboard advertisements. A new three-color version it adopted about 18 months ago is painted on the belly of its planes. The bottom row shows the new pin the staff rejected.

The Culture Services Team, charged with creating the pin, said employees it talked to had overwhelmingly asked for "a sturdier, quality piece incorporating our new, bold colors and Heart branding'' and wanted the years of service to be more visible. The resulting design went over like a lead balloon.

"Just like you all, I really cherish these pins that I've received,'' said Kelly, who will celebrate his 30th anniversary with Southwest this year. "The pins have evolved over the years, just like our brand image and our company. But what hasn't changed is the passion and the love we all feel for this great company."

Symbols can take on outsize importance in an industry that's been through the wringer, with staff enduring pay cuts and layoffs as most of the biggest U.S. airlines reorganized in bankruptcy and then merged. American Airlines, for example, had to rework a new, gray uniform design after workers last year complained about the material and the color.

Southwest employees identify strongly with their upstart brand, symbolized by the wings and heart, that had to fight a legal battle just to gain the right to fly and has sustained the longest string of annual profits in the industry as rivals staggered.

Unlike in other industries that feature uniforms, such as hotels and restaurants, airline workers may spend decades at a single carrier, making the uniform that much more important, said Henry Harteveldt, founder of the aviation advisory firm Atmosphere Research Group.

Flight attendants and pilots in particular are likelier to stay at one airline for their whole career, and their uniforms become a part of their identity. Some airlines have kept their service pins consistent for decades even as they tinkered with their corporate image.

"They are small but meaningful touch points to the airline's own history,'' Harteveldt said. "Airlines are more than brands. They're a mix of tribes and theater.''

In his recorded message, Kelly encouraged Southwest employees to take part in the redesign process and "be respectful of other opinions.''

Southwest is collecting suggestions until Monday. The top three will be included in an employee vote in mid-May.

"This time you will decide on the design."

(Mary Schlangenstein - Bloomberg Business)

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