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Southwest's Muddled Attack on Change Fees May Backfire

I've written before about the difficulty Southwest (LUV) would face when it shifted its advertising from no bag fees to no change fees. Now that the first ads have debuted, I can't say I've changed my mind. The change fee message that Southwest is using is not nearly as clear as the bag fee message, and it could end up backfiring.

With bag fees, it's pretty simple. You check two bags; you don't pay any extra. On other airlines, you do. So the "Bags Fly Free" message has resonated and done a lot for the airline. But with change fees, it's different. Here's one of the ads:

The message is now "Don't pay a change fee on top of a fare difference." That doesn't roll off the tongue like "Bags Fly Free" now, does it? So it's not going to be nearly as sticky as the previous campaign, but since Southwest does hammer home these messages with constant TV ads, it will make a dent. That's the other problem.

People may hear all this, and if they take something away from it, it's likely to be "no change fees." That's what Southwest hopes will happen, but the reality of what the means isn't as cut and dry.

There is no change fee, but as the long tagline says, there is a fare difference to be paid. That fare difference can be hundreds of dollars, and your average traveler will not be happy with that. If people think "no change fees," then they don't usually separate out the fees versus the fare difference. They're instead get it stuck in their heads that there are no additional costs to change. And that's not true.

Southwest has tried to counter that problem by having this more detailed message, but that can go one of two ways. If that part sticks, then fewer people will grab onto it because it's just not an easy tagline to wrap your head around. If it doesn't stick, people will only remember the no change fee part and then potentially be angry when they see there's an additional charge.

There's no question that Southwest's lack of a change fee is a good thing, but it's a very hard thing to advertise clearly. Southwest thinks it's worth a gamble, but I think we could see some unhappy people in the end.

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Photo via Flickr user Ack Ook/CC 2.0
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