It was a blazing hot day when 23-year-old student and part-time waitress Kyla Ebbert left her San Diego campus for the airport. She had a doctor’s appointment in nearby Tucson and had a flight reservation with Southwest Airlines.
Ebbert handed her stub to the flight attendant and took her seat. But as the crew started the safety announcements she was approached by a safety officer, who asked her to follow him off the plane and onto the connecting skyway. Once outside the officer told her she was dressed in an inappropriate manner and would have to return home to change before she could take her flight.
Ebbert, who was wearing a tight turquoise sweater and white denim mini-skirt, was dumbfounded. ‘What part of my outfit is offensive?’ she asked the attendant. ‘The shirt? The skirt?’ The attendant frowned and said ‘The whole thing.’ The passenger stood her ground and eventually was allowed back on the plane on condition that she pulled down her skirt, pulled up her sweater and wore a blanket over her lap during the journey.
If you work in PR, the beads of sweat have probably already started to form on your forehead; this is, of course, a brand crisis in the making. Ebbert complained first to her mother, then the local radio station and finally the story started to make the national press. The final circle of media hell was achieved when Ebbert, clad in her now-infamous outfit, did the Today show followed by Dr Phil. Then a second woman, Setara Qassim, came forward, claiming she had been forced to fly Southwest wrapped in a blanket after her halter-neck dress was deemed too low-cut by flight attendants.
The problem for Southwest was threefold. First, it had treated two women who were dressed normally by current standards extremely badly. Second, Southwest has a strong reputation in the US as the fun and approachable airline. Its treatment of the women was not just inconsistent but directly contradictory to its positioning. Third, and perhaps worst of all, the airline looked hypocritical. In the 70s it used the strapline ‘Sex sells seats’ and dressed its stewardesses in hotpants that made Ebbert look like Auntie Edna at Christmas. Blogs began to erupt and the media to circle; a strong brand was in trouble.
There is an almost legendary move in marketing called the Tylenol 180. It happens when a company handles a crisis in a manner so consistent with its brand that it not only recovers from the crisis, it builds brand equity and market share as a result. The move was named after painkiller brand Tylenol’s ability to not only survive a tampering incident but emerge more trusted due to the way it handled the situation.
In the nick of time Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly executed this very move. Live on Dr Phil, an upset Ebbert was read a statement that apologized to her and offered her two free tickets. But the manner of the apology won the day. Kelly declared: ‘From a company who really loves PR, touche to you, Kyla. Some have said we’ve gone from wearing our famous hotpants to having hot flashes at Southwest, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we both know, this story has great legs, but the true issue here is that you are a valued customer, and you did not get an adequate apology. Kyla, we could have handled this better, and on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am truly sorry.’ The same day, Kelly recorded national radio ads announcing extra-low ‘miniskirt’ fares.
Crisis averted, brand restored and sales increased. A fully executed Tylenol 180 is a rare, but beautiful, thing.
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