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Brand Battle: Southwest Airlines vs. Frontier Airlines

Brand Battle: Southwest Airlines vs. Frontier Airlines

How a holistic strategy transformed the airline business

Summary: Two brands face off, measured across brand impact determinants and evaluated by their performance data in our latest study The 360° Advantage: How Whole Brands Dominate.

In this Brand Battle, Southwest Airlines takes on Frontier, both low-cost carriers in a crowded, competitive category. But one emerges as a virtuoso brand that looks at the air travel business through a different lens than everyone else—as a contest that must be won on many fronts.

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Southwest Airlines is a favorite choice for brand case studies. There's a good reason for that: they succeed not in spite of being different, but because of it. Some point to their unique business model, built on using one type of aircraft in a point-to-point flight system instead of using large hubs. 

Others claim their success is a consistent low fare model, forcing legacy carriers to operate on thinner margins as they cling to old service styles. Some say, no, it’s all about a customer-is-king commitment. There have even been theories that Southwest dominated because they had savvy traders who knew how to hedge jet-fuel prices. 

In the first few paragraphs of our study, The 360°Advantage: How Whole Brands Dominate, we made a different argument: they do everything well. With a score of 77 on the Whole Brand Index (WBI), they are one of the top brands in our study. In the airline category, they were the clear leader in both their WBI and TPS:

TABLE A

BrandCategoryWhole Brand IndexTotal Performance Score
SouthwestAirlinesAirlines77164
DeltaAirLinesAirlines70127
AmericanAirlinesAirlines6497
JetBlueAirlines6372
UnitedAirlinesAirlines6361
AlaskaAirlinesAirlines6288
FrontierAirlinesAirlines5311
SpiritAirlinesAirlines51(11)

We can learn a lot about Southwest by contrasting them with one of their smaller competitors, Frontier Airlines (WBI of 53), the extreme-discount carrier based in Denver. Table B shows all 10 of the brand impact determinants that contributed to the WBI for both brands. Southwest leads their smaller competitor by margins ranging from 22 to 30 points. This accounts for the 24 points difference in their WBI scores. 

Is it a fair comparison to pit the powerful Southwest against a carrier with fewer routes and a smaller fleet? It is because the comparison is precisely what happens in everyday market battles. It’s also fair because in an earlier time Southwest was the small, regional carrier going up against the behemoths of the airline industry—some that no longer exist, in part because Southwest helped bring them to their knees. 

TABLE B

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/rKZi0bRfAJEkyh1SIJoJzhbJPTEmMw8I_nOxicOyP2dV5usKfPvJSi8tYeFzEbWb-ggz5vAOjVJ_jd7lYAtuutH1Il0ACG6Pze8aE-tAB572v73MobSxExa8okoyznkvhhE1JclE

What we see from these brand impact determinants is that Southwest excels by a wide margin across a broad spectrum. On one determinant, visible communications, Southwest leads by 30 points. No doubt, its size helps them here, and heavy advertising can certainly lift a brand in other areas as well, perhaps causing people to view and score them more favorably on other measures. 

Hidden beneath the numbers, however, is a stability for Southwest that none of its competitors match. It’s found in the statistical tool popular with investors known as the coefficient of variation (CV), which measures volatility in a dataset. Expressed in percentages, a low CV means stability and consistency. The WBI consists of a large dataset—thousands of reported scoring choices across 10 brand determinants, all averaged into a single score.  

Here are the CV scores for the eight airline brands in our study:

Southwest Airlines14%
Delta Air Lines18%
American Airlines20%
JetBlue19%
United Airlines21%
Alaska Airlines21%
Frontier Airlines23%
Spirit Airlines28%

With a 14% CV, Southwest’s Whole Brand Index is about 40% less variant than Frontier’s, suggesting that besides being a higher score, it’s also a more consistent score, i.e, a more whole score. 

Think also about Southwest’s history. It was also once in Frontier’s position: a low-cost alternative who could beat the big players on price, but had to survive by its wits in other respects. It worked hard to be that five-tool brand--great product, great service, great experience, memorable look and feel, and fun advertising. 

It has always worked hard to penetrate across the total brand spectrum, doing everything well. Even though it never offered anything close to a white-glove service experience, it consistently beat competitors in service satisfaction (by being polite, smiling, and with an offbeat sense of humor). Its WBI proves it's an elite, whole brand. 

Read more about The 360° Advantage: How Whole Brands Dominate.

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Unless otherwise stated, Barkley does not have a business relationship with the brands mentioned in this article. All Barkley clients are clearly noted throughout the Whole Brand Index and Whole Brand Project website.


Barkley US

Sep 15, 2020

filed under:
Brand Battles, Marketing, Modern Consumer, Research, Travel, Whole Brand

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Brand Battles, Healthcare, Marketing, Modern Consumer, Research, Whole Brand
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