by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) Not every organisation is marketing- and communication-minded but those that are tend to drive this function on a continuous basis. They advertise, promote or brand regularly, and some of the variables are the extent of the budget, the channels of communication and the market messages. Why then do companies take a different approach to organisational health, people and culture?

We see too often that that panacea to world tension is a t-shirt, poster on the wall or ad hoc company conference and we expect total business transformation of a sustainable kind. It seems totally counter-intuitive to even remotely expect this to yield any result whatsoever.

Competitive advantage through culture and service goes beyond once-off efforts and transcends occasional internal communication or marketing. As I have said before, it is a company-wide and holistic approach to people engagement that will work.

Southwest Airlines

The case study of Southwest Airlines is well-documented and one that is analysed by many other organisations the world throughout. It is one in which people, culture and organisational health have been placed at the epicentre of its entire business strategy. This has enabled a growth journey from humble beginnings in 1971, when it ran 12 flights per day with a mere 200 employees. Today, it is a huge organisation, delivering 3600 flights a day and employing 46 000 people. And while this exponential growth has unfolded, it has built a customer-service culture which has virtually become folklore and is the envy not only of airline industry rivals but many organisations in the broader service sector and business generally. What magic potion has prevailed and how has this been achieved?

The essence appears to be in the holistic approach adopted by Southwest. The leadership vision and commitment have been real, from the original founder Herb Kelleher through to present-day chief executive, Gary Kelly — both are highly inspirational leaders and Kelleher is attributed with coining the well-adopted phrase that “the business of business is people”. Much like my reference to Netflix in a prior column, Southwest doesn’t claim its approach to be perfect, but seeks to constantly evolve, improve and develop it to suit the ebb and flow of business dynamics. It has created an organisation where there is a lot of hard work, matched by a tremendous amount of fun, resulting in the notion that the inside of the business looks like the outside. This implies no puffery, no false marketing and no promises made that are not kept — we are back to my most basic definition of a successful brand.


At the heart of the Southwest Airlines business is a core value system, one that is energising, inspiring and fantastically simple:

  • Warrior Spirit — work hard
  • Servant’s Heart — care about others
  • Fun-loving — have a good heart

More important than the mere simplicity of these values is that Southwest protects them vehemently and strives to live them out on a continuous basis. Once again, no onerous human resource policies and documents, but a fun, engaging and dynamic approach to holding people at the centre, off a strong and clear leadership platform. Southwest strives to recruit the right people in the first place — but then works equally hard at obsessing about treating people right and driving a level of happiness in people that delivers great service. A Kelleher statement captures this well: “We want people who do things well, with laughter and grace.”

With heart

The cynic would argue that this sounds like an extract from a fairy-tale and others would suggest that we could never get this right in South Africa. The evidence from Southwest Airlines lies in its results. It is the largest domestic airline in the world and has been profitable for 43 consecutive years, in what many call the world’s largest non-profit sector — just ask our own South African Airways.

Emblazoned on the undercarriage of the fleet is a large heart in the Southwest colours, suggesting that “without a heart, it’s just a machine”. At Southwest Airlines there is no flying by the seat of the pants — it’s all heart and culture is real!


Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing upon internal branding to MarkLives.

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