How Southwest Airlines Built a Stand-Out Employer Brand in 5 Steps

April 11, 2018

A great employer brand has the power to attract the best talent. But building that brand doesn’t happen overnight. And, it doesn’t happen without tapping into both marketing and HR.

As the CMO and CHRO at creative consultancy Lippincott, Heather Stern has a unique understanding of how companies can combine marketing strategies and HR knowledge to build brands that attract the right people. At Talent Connect 2017, she described the work Lippincott did with one company in particular — Southwest Airlines —to help refresh the company’s brand in order to resonate with employees and customers.  

Below are the five tips she shared on how other companies can use the same strategy to craft a compelling employer brand and show candidates a more enticing picture of your company, turn existing employees into talent brand ambassadors, and even improve productivity and performance. 

1. Make it meaningful: show candidates why they’ll love working at your company

The companies with the best employer brands create emotional connections with candidates by showing the impact their work will have.

“This is purpose,” Heather says. “An ambitious and broad articulation of what the company and its employees aim to achieve for its customers, and why. In other words, ‘Why do we exist?’”

This sense of purpose can bring employees together and make their job feel more meaningful. When it becomes part of your employer brand, it speaks to candidates on a deeper level — they see the full impact of their individual role.

When Lippincott worked with Southwest to develop its brand, the airline faced an unusual situation. Southwest has always been known for its unique, fun-loving culture, but the marketplace was becoming increasingly competitive as other airlines were starting to do similar things. And after merging with AirTran, 20% of Southwest’s employees were now people who hadn’t chosen to work with them, and may have felt disconnected to their “new” employer.

To stand out from the crowd and help all employees feel connected to the company, Southwest decided that its purpose — putting people first — should become central to every message they sent out into the world. This inspired one of its mottos: “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.”

When thinking about purpose, companies should ask tough questions, says Heather. “Is it an emotional idea that can get people up out of bed in the morning and excited about going to work? And is it worded so that no explanation is required? It should serve as a rallying cry.”

If you’re considering what your company’s purpose is and how to express it to candidates, Heather provides the following checklist to help you get started:

Take the time to figure out your company’s purpose and ensure it’s aligned with the work you do. When you have your message, make sure it’s simple and self-explanatory. In doing so, you make it easy for people to talk about and rally around it.

2. Make it memorable: use design to make your brand stand out

Heather recommends that companies find a way to translate their purpose into a visual symbol that candidates will see and recognize.

“I would really encourage all of you, if you have designers within your organization [or] if you work with outside agencies, really push them and really listen to them,” she says. “Not just to make things pretty, but to make things memorable and stand out.”

After working with Southwest Airlines to find the company’s purpose, Lippincott went on to help it develop a visual representation of that purpose. This symbol would be used to reinforce the brand’s purpose and remind customers and candidates of the company’s “heart.”

The company settled on a heart created from three stripes of blue, red, and yellow—colors that people already associated with the tails of its planes. Despite being a fairly generic symbol, the colors made the heart memorable and unique, and it didn’t take long to catch on.

The heart also struck a chord with employees and applicants. Pilots began to touch the heart beside the door as they boarded the aircraft. And taking a selfie with the heart on the underbelly of the plane became a point of pride for new and existing employees, helping spread the message across social media.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of a design team, there are small visual touches that you can add to your careers page right away. This could include images of staff wearing branded t-shirts or taking a fun photo in front of the company’s sign.

3. Make it tangible: clearly show what it takes for employees to deliver on the company’s purpose

Saying you have a purpose is one thing. Acting on it is another.

“If we want everyone moving in the right direction together, everyone has to understand their role in it,” Heather says. This means clearly communicating what it takes to deliver the company’s purpose to customers every day.

At Southwest, employees do things like pitch in together to clean the plane after a flight, and give input into the company’s policies and procedures. Letters of thanks from customers (known as LUV Mail) are shared with employees to show them what their work means for customers, and the company invests in training to strengthen the culture.

Be transparent about the company’s values and mission, and explain what it takes to deliver the best service to the customer. This can be a part of your careers page and woven through all your conversations with candidates, helping them understand the sense of purpose and get inspired to be part of it.

4. Make it human: find little touches that help candidates feel the brand in all communications

“Companies need to communicate like humans,” Heather says, pointing out that the age of cold, faceless institutions is rapidly fading. “Being human means not only allowing people to see and hear the brand, but also to feel the brand.”

For Southwest, little touches made all the difference. The company took the time to develop the type of language it wanted to use to communicate its “fun LUVing” attitude, warrior spirit, and commitment to serving customers. To go the extra mile, the company even developed a custom typeface.

You might not be able to make your own font, but you can make your company feel more friendly, approachable, and human. Sharing images of the team on the company’s website, social media accounts, and even in ads can create a picture for candidates that they can’t wait to be part of.

Of course, one of the best ways to help candidates feel your brand is to let them experience it for themselves. Events that allow candidates to meet your team, visit your offices, and see your purpose in action can be super powerful. For some inspiration, take a look at the open mic nights organized by LinkedIn to give candidates the chance to see another side to the company and chat to hiring managers in a relaxed environment.

5. Make it stick: don’t abandon your purpose to jump on the latest trend

After you’ve put all this effort into building a distinct employer brand, the final and most important step is making it stick.

Unfortunately, Heather says a lot of companies stumble at this part. While everyone might be on board with the purpose at first, different departments within the company can start to do their own thing—so maintaining consistency is vital.

“The brand idea gets diluted,” Heather warns. “It starts to fracture.”

When other companies are doing cool things, it can be tempting to jump ship and try that trend out for size. But while it’s good to stay fresh, companies should return to their fundamental purpose before trying something new. If the two things aren’t compatible, it’s not going to work, and the message will just end up jumbled.

To see a success story in consistency, look at what Southwest has achieved since developing and maintaining its people-centric brand. In 2016, it saw a record $2.2 billion in profits. And on the talent acquisition end, the company ranked #13 on Forbes’ list of best employers, with 85% of employees saying they’re proud to work at Southwest.

“When we look at our data, we definitely see a correlation between the organizations that have an empowered, inspired employee base that understands its mission and its purpose [and] the external success of the organization,” Heather says.

Your employer brand is one of the most useful recruiting tools at your disposal — but if you let it go its own way, it can seriously hurt your ability to attract top talent. By following these five tips, you can shape your company’s brand into something that recruits for you, sending a message out to the world that this is a company to pay attention to.

*Image from Southwest Airlines

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