“Luving” Authenticity and Southwest Airlines

I flew two Southwest flights recently, so this article hit close to home: Positioning Southwest Airlines through Employee Branding, by Sandra J. Miles and W.Glynn Mangold. The article was published in Business Horizons in 2005.

This article is about employee branding, using Southwest airlines as a case study. What struck me about this article is that it was, in a large part, about authenticity without the word ever being mentioned.

Article Summary
Southwest has an enviable reputation, with very specific missions and values. If you want to read more about them and how they are embedded in their employees in more detail, please see the article. However, two of the methods are highlighted as key by the authors:

(1) Consistency in messaging: every message (to staff, advertising, customers, etc) is vetted to ensure it embodies and is consistent with Southwest values;

(2) The psychological contract is a perceptual “deal” the employee makes with the organisation about what is acceptable and not acceptable at work and what they are going to get in exchange for what they give. Staff at Southwest are very specific about their contract, and expectations and spelled out through a strong corporate culture.

If the organisation is consistent in their culture; and they develop and behave consistently from the top down, they will attract and retain employees who behave in that way.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but anyone who has worked in a large organisation can tell you it is not an easy thing to do.

The upshot of this, of course, is that Southwest becomes perceived as an authentic organisation because they are one. Let’s take this article through some observations.

Objective: Southwest is what it says it is, with every message vetted to ensure this is the case. Even broken promises with customers (like the delays I experienced at SFO recently on my flight) are explained in a forthright way. However this is not unusual for an airline.

Constructive: Most of the article is devoted to Southwest’s culture. For a company with a love heart in their logo and the word “luv” everywhere, the desire on behalf of the company to project a specific culture is strong.  They manage it top-down AND bottom-up. Southwest culture circles focus on maintaining and expanding the culture. Southwest shapes their culture deliberately, through careful selection, reinforcement, measurement and active participation. But that deliberateness may come across as natural because it becomes second nature to most of the people surrounded by it. And remember, employees are selected on their basis of whether they are a fit for the Southwest culture.

Commercial: Southwest attempts to be true to itself through its self-constructed messages and culture, which, ideally has been internalised by its staff and then is externalised through their customer service.

Existential: The key to Southwest’s success in this area is to move away from scripted behaviour, while consistently engaging with the cultural norms emphasised by the organisation. A good example illustrating this are the  Southwest employees singing their safety scripts before takeoff. The consistency of the Southwest brand is present and within that strict, deliberately constructed world, people are still free to “be themselves” and execute their own agency (when that agency aligns with Southwest mission and values).

This article discusses “employee branding”; but it is really about orchestrating an organisational culture so thoroughly that the culture imbues everything. From suppliers, to customers, to shareholders, employees and other stakeholders, the Southwest brand culture comes across as authentic, because it is. The challenge? To make it happen.

Authenticity in Seeded Blog Promotions

For those of you interested in authenticity in social media promotions, an excellent paper is Network Narratives: Understanding Word of Mouth Marketing in Online Communities by Kozinets, de Valck, Wojnicki and Wilner in 2010 in the Journal of Marketing. This paper follows a seeded blog promotion for a mobile phone company  and how the bloggers spoke about the phone to their audience, and how accepting the audience was of the promotional posts.

This is one of the great bits of the paper: “…communal WOM (Word of Mouth Marketing) does not simply increase or amplify marketing messages: rather marketing messages are systemically altered in the process of embedding them.” Marketers often see WOM as amplification of their prepared marketing messages (like a megaphone). But people who generate WOM don’t do that. They alter the product-related message to suit themselves, their audience and the specific context in which the message is delivered.

My take on this is that WOM is like a blender–people talking about your product will say whatever they like and mix it in with other ingredients they like–because their goal to promote the product is secondary to their goal of being an effective communicator.

Proponents of authenticity, like myself, would argue that authenticity is a key factor in whether a WOM message is accepted. I read “Network Narratives” with a view to authenticity and then wrote a little bit about it and presented my findings at the Service Management and Science Forum in Las Vegas in August 2013. My paper is called Network Narratives Revisited.

Take Aways
Authenticity, and the desire to seem authentic and credible, plays a role in how the seeded blog messages were accepted by the blog audiences. Kozinet’s analyses did not mention authenticity explicitly all the way through, but a 360da demonstrates that authenticity follows his model closely.

The contribution of this secondary analysis is twofold. First, using a 360da tool is a great way marketers and bloggers embarking on their WOM journey can consider and craft their promotional posts. Marketers should approach generating WOM and authenticity deliberately and use every tool at hand to try as best they can to craft the kinds of messages they are looking for.

The second contribute of revisiting this paper is the recognition that WOM analyses on authenticity do not follow the expected construct for personal communication. Rather WOM is perceived similarly to advertising form an authenticity perspective. So for bloggers to seem more authentic to their audience, they may have to be more deliberate (like an advertisement) rather than natural (like a conversation).