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Southwest Airlines

How Southwest Airlines Remained the ‘Culture Company’ for Its 50th Milestone

Southwest Airlines wanted to create a memorable 50th anniversary to usher in its next era. History Factory dove into its culture and connected the airline’s colorful past with its bright future so that even though COVID-19 hit during its anniversary, Southwest was prepared to pivot and still execute against its original goal. We provided Southwest with:

  • An anniversary strategy and playbooks for executing ideas and concepts
  • Storylines and a content bank for an anniversary microsite that reinterpreted well-known stories in new ways and unearthed more recent stories
  • Two books: “Leading With Heart,” focused on Southwest’s 50-year legacy of leadership, and “50 Years. One Heart,” focused on Southwest’s rich history
  • A new archives system to ensure the organization, protection and accessibility of Southwest’s artifacts

Southwest Airlines, the country’s No. 1 airline in customer satisfaction and a top-three ranked airline overall, is known for its hospitality and people-focused culture. It’s also known for its celebrations.

This is an organization that lists a “fun-loving attitude” as part of its employee promise. Surprise gate decorations and expressions of customer appreciation, Southwest heritage and employee recognition frequently appear across its geographic footprint. Employee rallies and prior milestone celebrations have a reputation for being iconic.

For its 50th anniversary in 2021, the company’s expectations for ways to engage employees, customers and communities in the celebration were higher than high. They were epic.

“[Our 50th anniversary] was the first time that we sought an outside strategic partner to help us really think beyond what we’ve always done and how we’ve always done it.” 

Beth Harbin, retired Senior Director of Communications at Southwest

‘We’re Not Going To Out-Southwest Southwest’

History Factory joined the planning party in 2019 because Southwest believed we brought a different type of expertise to the table. “We’re not going to out-Southwest Southwest,” we told them. “We’re going to help you be your best.”

We knew that what Southwest needed wasn’t just a catalog of monumental ideas—Southwest was already the expert in celebrating its people, customers and heritage. What it needed was a strategy and an architecture to pull together the many ideas and numerous internal stakeholders that were already in play.

It’s Gotta Be Epic

First, we applied our proven processes and frameworks to help Southwest establish its goals, objectives, tenets and KPIs for the anniversary. And what a goal that was:

Launch an epic, yearlong 50th anniversary platform to usher in our next era at Southwest.

To achieve this objective, we capitalized on Southwest’s inclusive culture in partnership with its experienced and knowledgeable team.

We traveled to employees across the country and, in a fun, gamified way, gathered their ideas about how they envisioned celebrating the 50th milestone. Every concept and theme idea we presented to Southwest leadership could be traced back to Southwest’s people.

Working with Southwest’s Dallas-based planning team, we refined ideas, advised internal working teams and rallied around a theme: “50 Years. One Heart.”

“[History Factory] challenged us to put folks together who maybe don’t always work together, have them work differently, have them stretch in new ways. And that was very deliberate throughout the original planning process.”

Beth Harbin

Dallas, We Have a Problem—And an Opportunity

In the midst of planning, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending air travel demand plummeting. Plans for Southwest’s 50th anniversary became uncertain. Despite facing the biggest crisis in its history, however, Southwest knew how important celebrating its anniversary would be to inspire and engage its people.

Although our current environment looks slightly different than what we anticipated in our 50th year, I want to be crystal clear. That difference in no way takes away from the immense pride our entire Southwest family, past and present should have in us reaching this extraordinary milestone. It certainly doesn’t for me. In fact, it strengthens it.

Gary Kelly, Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors and former CEO of Southwest

Though some concepts and events were downsized, Southwest never strayed from its goals and objectives for the anniversary. It was committed to recognizing the incredible milestone appropriately and showing appreciation for the employees, customers and communities who made it possible.

Fostering Engagement When It Was Needed Most

Were we able to be successful? It was a resounding ‘yes!’ as we looked at our goal to launch an epic 50th anniversary and achieve each of those internal and external objectives.

Katie Coldwell, Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Citizenship at Southwest

Founder Herb Kelleher was known for his philosophy that in order to succeed, a company must put its employees first. At a time when the travel industry was scrambling to figure out how to keep employees committed and engaged, the multifaceted components of Southwest’s anniversary reinvigorated staff and reinforced the ethos of the company’s work culture.

Nearly 6,000 employees opted in to celebrate Southwest’s hybrid day-of anniversary event on June 18, 2021. Additionally, employee engagement was up triple digits on Southwest’s private SWA Culture Facebook page during Southwest’s Birthday Week compared to 2020’s Birthday Week—thanks to compelling storytelling and employee activations such as an employee rally, gift announcements and the launch of a new specialty plane.

In addition to numerous content elements, sales campaigns and customer reward and recognition activations, Southwest sought to give back to its communities through several landmark anniversary programs. In line with the anniversary theme, one of the most visible was the One Million Acts of Kindness challenge. Over the course of 2021, Southwest employees and customers logged more than 1.5 million acts of kindness, far surpassing the original goal. When the tally reached 1 million, Southwest distributed $1 million to 501(c)(3) organizations.

Southwest’s 50th anniversary was a celebration like no other. History Factory supported the airline’s most important milestone yet with:

  • Playbooks for executing its internal ideas and concepts (for example, considerations for painting planes and executing events)
  • Storylines and a content bank for the microsite that reinterpreted well-known stories in new ways and unearthed more recent stories
  • Two books: One, “Leading With Heart,” focused on Southwest’s 50-year legacy of leadership, highlighting past and current Southwest leaders including Executive Chairman and former CEO Gary Kelly and others; the other, “50 Years. One Heart,” focused on Southwest’s rich history
  • Exhibit planning in airports, at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, and at Southwest Headquarters at Love Field in Dallas, TX
  • A new archives system to ensure the organization, protection and accessibility of Southwest’s artifacts