Corporate Storytelling™ Fires Up Employees–and the Bottom Line

Symbols, drama, stories, vision and love–these are the stuff of effective leadership, much more so than formal processes or structures….When you involve people, they feel ownership and perform up to 1,000% better.
– Tom Peters, A Passion for Excellence
Is your entire company burning with excitement about your vision? Is everyone in your organization–employees, associates, customers and suppliers–so charged up by the corporate story that they’re eager to tell it to others? Or has your story–and your entire company–lost its spark?

If you–and all those associated with your company–aren’t fired up about your corporate story, you’re wasting marketing and advertising dollars–and losing a lot of business! To be noticed in the clutter of the marketplace–where 3,000 advertisements bombard each of us every day and 17,000 new products are introduced each year–you need a corporate story that burns so brightly, all the right audiences are drawn to the flame.

At Southwest Airlines, the corporate story is clear to every employee and evident to every passenger who boards a Southwest plane. The results have been consistently impressive.

When Chairman Herb Kelleher founded Southwest in 1971, he envisioned a low-cost, point-to-point airline where everyone had fun while getting the job done. His mission was to provide the highest quality of customer service with a sense of family warmth, friendliness, individual pride and company spirit.

The corporate culture emphasizes fun, and a strong spirit is evident as soon as you arrive at the ticket counter. Employee uniforms, unlike the formal, military-like uniforms of other carriers, consists of shorts, polo shirts and sports shoes. Ticket agents and flight attendants all seem to be enjoying themselves, welcoming customers effortlessly with bright, friendly smiles.

The fun begins as soon as the plane prepares to take off with, of all things, a funny presentation on safety procedures. Passengers accustomed to the usually dry, boring briefings on other airlines become alert on Southwest flights to make sure they won’t miss the next joke!

On one flight, instructions on using oxygen masks reminded passengers to first put on your own mask, then “help the child sitting next to you–or the person who’s acting like a child.” At the end of the flight, as the plane taxied to the gate, the attendant cautioned everyone to remain seated until the airplane stopped “because the cockpit crew are better pilots than drivers.”

By repeating its story at every turn, Southwest accomplishes a number of goals:

  • flight attendants have a chance to be creative and have some fun
  • pre-flight instructions set the tone for an enjoyable trip
  • everyone enjoys what normally is a boring and routine part of flying
  • important safety instructions that could make a critical difference in an emergency are heard
  • passengers get caught up in the Southwest spirit

The approach is effective because the Southwest spirit isn’t just a great promotional idea; it’s a true reflection of the culture.

Joyce Rogge, vice president of advertising and promotions, explains that “the fun is in the camaraderie, the pulling together; there are no ‘I’s’ but a lot of ‘we’s.’ We certainly can’t be fun about maintenance and the responsibilities of our pilots, but as Herb is often quoted as saying, ‘We take the business and the competition seriously; we just don’t take ourselves too seriously.’

“We couldn’t have the safety record we do if we didn’t have a lot of pride in what we do, and yet people enjoy themselves. The mission has been the same since Southwest was founded. We’ve even had a campaign about the ‘Southwest spirit.'”

The effectiveness of establishing and nurturing a strong corporate culture is demonstrated by a low turnover rate and profitability even in years when other airlines were preparing financial statements with red ink. As Rogge explains, “We now have more than 19,000 employees, and…we work constantly to ensure that employees know how our family spirit tastes, feels and looks. We have a low turnover rate (4.7%), and that in turn means that when people are here for long periods of time, the culture is more embedded in them. The family caring attitude has increased over the years.

“According to our mission,” Rogge says, “employees will be treated with the same qualities as we expect them to show the customer. We not only believe in it; we preach it to ourselves. For example, that message is the first thing people see when they turn on their computers.”

Successfully creating a strong corporate culture centered on fun is especially remarkable, considering that Southwest has based its business approach on being “The Low-Fare Airline,” the current advertising theme. “Cost-cutting” is a term that usually sends chills up employees spines, causing them to wonder if their jobs are on the line.

But Rogge says that the airline is committed to providing a stable work environment where “creativity is encouraged.” She points out that “low fare, high frequency, low cost and point-to-point carrier” are the qualities that have always set Southwest apart from the competition. “Instead of being a hub/spoke airline, we’ve created this point-to-point, short-hop airline, which is a different way of operating. I think it’s admirable that we’ve stuck with it.”

Keeping operating costs low has enabled Southwest to turn both operating and net profits in some very difficult years for airlines. Kelleher says Southwest was the only airline to do that during the period of 1990 through 1994, when the industry as a whole lost $12 billion.

Kelleher believes the strength of the Southwest spirit is largely a result of employees receiving what they need from their work. The airline is employee-owned, but in an interview with America On-line, Kelleher says “that is one motivating factor, but only one, because I think people are looking for psychic satisfaction in what they do–particularly today–and we try to remain cognizant of that.”

The underlying factor is that Southwest Airlines knows exactly who and what it is. The story is clear, and it’s clearly told. Kelleher and his management team have done an exemplary job of creating a culture that expresses the core message at every step and in every detail of daily operations. The excitement and enthusiasm is evident, and it casts a warm glow on all who come near.

Is it any wonder that customers keep returning?

© Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, is president of Clark & Company, a marketing communication firm in the Seattle area. A public relations practitioner with more than 20 years experience, she was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America in 1986. Her firm’s services include facilitation of retreats and communication workshops, marketing and communication management, media relations strategy development, and media training.

Click here to return to the index of Articles

Facebook Comments