A tale of two arm wrestling matches

In 2003, two telecommunications companies in New Zealand couldn’t decide which of them should have access to a sought-after mobile radio network. Industry regulators got involved and both companies appeared to be heading for an expensive court battle. But then, one of the companies came up with the idea of holding a best-of-three arm wrestling competition with the radio network as the prize. The dispute was finally settled through this unusual out-of-court settlement match. This incident is not without precedent, settling disputes through arm-wrestling was pioneered by Southwest Airlines. When Rolling King and Herb Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines in 1978, right from the beginning they built a reputation of being a fun and zany airline. In 1990, Southwest introduced a new slogan “Just Plane Smart” and after using the slogan for 15 months they got a call from Stevens Aviation that they had been using the slogan prior to Southwest. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on legal fees, they decided to settle the dispute with a best-of-three arm wrestling competition. The event, ‘Malice in Dallas’ was held at the famed wrestling forum, the Dallas Sportatrium, it was a best-of-three competition where the loser would lose rights to the slogan and would have to donate $5000 to charity. In the days leading up to the event, both companies promoted it heavily and customers and well-wishers sent items to Kelleher that they thought could help him win. Herb arrived in a bus with cheerleaders to the “Rocky” theme song and Steven’s CEO wore a red robe. Stevens Airlines won the fun contest, but the CEO, Kurt Herwald, allowed Southwest to use the slogan as a show of good sportsmanship and for Southwest’s willingness to accept such a crazy proposal. Even the President of the United States took notice of this event. George H.W. Bush sent a congratulatory letter to both participants calling it a “win-win.” Southwest airlines PR manager, later estimated that the event generated over six million dollars worth of publicity and a year later Southwest’s stock price doubled.

These two amusing stories are also a study in contrasts. In the Southwest case both airlines created an event out of the unusual settlement process. Southwest used the spectacle and hype to continue burnishing its reputation of being a fun and zany airline. They understood that building a brand is not restricted to occasions when a company spends media dollars on a campaign, but every opportunity to communicate with people is an opportunity to build the brand.

Building brands requires what I call, a relentless pursuit of sameness. This pursuit of sameness does not eschew the usage of technology and digital tools, it is not as much about how the brand is communicated than about what about the brand is being communicated. It calls for not getting distracted by fads but having an almost zen-like focus on creating meaning for the brand and “saying the same thing, differently”. In fact, modern understanding of the physiology of the human brain and how memories are created and retained also underscores the importance of ruthless consistency. The aim really is to create easy-to-remember assets that will over time (with consistent and constant use) create memory structures, keep the brand top-of-mind for buyers and ensure what’s termed as mental availability. To distil, protect and nurture what’s core to the brand and yet evolve and keep-up with changing times, technologies and consumer tastes may seem like conflicting goals. But this dualism is much like ying and yang from ancient Chinese philosophy where seemingly opposite forces may be complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

When tactics dominate most of what marketers do, the pursuit of sameness with the goal to build a lasting brand can be a north star that could inspire different choices while making marketing decisions.