“Research is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have” – Isaac Muñoz, Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest low cost carrier and is known for its exemplary customer service. B2B International’s Julia Cupman recently interviewed Southwest’s Isaac Muñoz to discuss the story behind the brand’s success.
CUPMAN: What is your role at Southwest Airlines?
MUÑOZ: I work in the Customer Intelligence team managing all things related to communication. This includes market planning, advertising, social media, customer engagement, national strategic partnerships (e.g. sports), community and strategic outreach, diversity and inclusion, and international operations.
CUPMAN: What attracted you to the world of research?
MUÑOZ: I’ve always loved sociology and anthropology – understanding cultures and human behaviour and that neither of these is predictable. In particular I find the convergence between culture and psychology of interest. I like to think of research as both a science and an art. T science aspect of research is obvious but the art of research is quite creative, going beyond the visualization of data (graphs, images, iconographs, etc.) to means of asking the same question in different ways and creating ingenious methods to understand behavior.
CUPMAN: How have you seen research change over the past 10 years?
MUÑOZ: From a nice-to-have to a must-have! This is because there are so many unknown variables. Quantitative research is very important but it needs to be grounded within the context of the customer psyche and environment. Of course the big topic with quantitative research these days is big data. We know so much about consumers nowadays, from the time they go to sleep to when they get up and the activities they do (think Jawbone or FitBit; they are personalised data aggregators). This can then be incorporated into all kinds of modelling, depending on the story you want to tell.
Qualitative research has also evolved. In the past it was all about focus groups, but in order to complements the stats behind quant, you need to do ethnographies and in today’s ever-connected society, netnographies.
CUPMAN: What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by corporate researchers?
MUÑOZ: Beyond the obvious of budget, the biggest challenge is prioritisation. There is so much we don’t know, so it’s hard to prioritise what we really need. You also need strong partners to help you deliver on these prioritised research objectives. Your research vendor isn’t a vendor; they’re a partner.
Another really important challenge that tends to be overlooked is focus – the competition versus brand growth and evolution. The latter is of utmost importance, in my opinion.
CUPMAN: How is research in the airline industry different from research in other industries?
MUÑOZ: For a start, everything about an airline is very much based on experience. We’re selling something that’s very intangible which isn’t experienced in the home or at work. This experience varies based on the reasons for travel. So, for example, people flying for leisure with say their family have a very different mindset from the business flyer.
The other key difference is the way we sell this experience. You don’t go somewhere in person to buy your seat; you buy it online but don’t get to experience the true nature of our brand until you’re on the plane. And then, of course, there’s pricing. It’s not like packaged goods where there are products available in the thousands. There are only so many seats on the plane and so the price is determined by the demand for the route and time of flight.
CUPMAN: Back in 2011, Southwest acquired AirTran. What implications did this have for your research?
MUÑOZ: We wanted to make sure the acquisition went well, and that there was a strong transition for the AirTran customer to Southwest without alienating them. We also acknowledged that AirTran was doing many things well and so we needed to listen to customers in order to leverage AirTran’s strengths.
CUPMAN: Southwest recently expanded into Mexico. What research considerations are important to take into account when researching Mexico versus the U.S.?
MUÑOZ: Language, cultural nuances, environment. These all have implications on research. Some people think that because they understand Hispanics in the U.S., they’ll understand consumers in Mexico, but that’s really not the case as this underestimates the impact of acculturation and assimilation.
Another thing to keep in mind when doing research in Mexico (or other Spanish-speaking countries) is that respondent positivity does not translate into a love of your product or brand. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about American brands, but there’s also a lot of cultural pride in using Mexican brands. Differentiating between the two is crucial.
CUPMAN: You recently carried out branding research with B2B International. The research findings showed that Southwest is an extremely strong brand. How would you summarise the essence of your brand?
MUÑOZ: Colleen Barrett, our President Emerita, said:
We are a customer service company. We just happen to fly planes.”
Our goal is to connect people to what’s important in their lives through low fares and reliable and exceptional customer service. You heard our customers’ stories in the research we did with B2B International. We truly care about people…they are our priority.
CUPMAN: What advice would you give other companies considering branding research?
MUÑOZ: Look for the right research partner. Trust is imperative, especially when dealing with things that will affect your brand for years to come. The analysis is never finished and you often need to revisit the data; this entails real partnership between the client and the vendor. You also need to keep an open mind to different points of view.
To learn more about branding research, take a look at our branding research page.