Inside Southwest’s Push to Court Younger Travelers as U.S. Weighs TikTok Ban

Skift Take

Skift speaks with Southwest’s vice president of marketing about the carrier’s latest advertising campaign that seeks to attract more Gen Z and Millennial travelers.

As other airlines are focused on high demand for international travel and first-class seating, Southwest Airlines is taking a different approach. 

The carrier recently rolled out a new advertising campaign, called “The Big Flex,” that emphasizes its perks like two free checked bags and points that don’t expire. 

Jonathan Clarkson, Southwest’s vice president of marketing, said the airline noticed a “customer evolution” with an increasing number of Gen Z and Millennial travelers interested in its perks.

The only issue, Clarkson said, was that younger travelers were not as familiar with the brand as those who have been flying Southwest for decades.

“It just felt like a prime opportunity to build a campaign that celebrates those points of difference that support freedom and flexibility and do it in sort of a bimodal way where we have executions that are targeted toward a younger population and then also executions that are targeted toward our more traditional customer base,” Clarkson said. 

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One ad features a man with bouncy, curly hair telling a woman he’s able to pack “a lot of shampoo” because of Southwest’s two free checked bags policy. Another ad features a couple stepping into a pool while telling other guests they were able to extend their stay by an extra day since Southwest doesn’t have change fees. 

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The Southwest vice president said regardless of age, customers are primarily concerned with price and schedule when booking flights. 

“Price and schedule are two of the strongest determinants regardless of whether you’re taking your first leisure trip in your early twenties or whether you’re going to see your grandkids at a more advanced stage,” he said. 

A Comeback After the 2022 Holiday Meltdown

The ads will be featured on television, and Southwest is also teaming up with influencers to promote the brand on social media. Clarkson said the carrier didn’t roll out any new brand campaigns for a while after its 2022 holiday meltdown. 

“I think it did create a great opportunity for us again, to really support things that are important to people and sort of remind them that, you know, here two bags fly free,” Clarkson said. “We never have a change fee on any fare. Our Rapid Rewards program is the best one in the industry.”

An Influencer Campaign Amid a Potential TikTok Ban

Part of Southwest’s push to reach younger travelers is working with influencers on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. 

“We’re leveraging channels like our social media channels to a much greater degree than I think we have in the past,” he said. 

But television is still important. 

“The linear television and programming on ESPN and the networks, that still gives us quite a bit of breadth in terms of awareness,” Clarkson said. “And when you think about an evolving customer target, it’s important to be in as many places as you can.”

TikTok has become an increasingly popular platform for advertising. A report found that brands spent around $4 billion on advertising on TikTok in 2023. Despite TikTok’s popularity in the U.S., it has also drawn the ire of lawmakers seeking to ban the platform over national security concerns. 

A recent bill providing aid to Ukraine and Israel also included a provision to ban TikTok if the platform is unable to find a U.S. buyer in six months. That legislation passed the House of Representatives on Saturday and the Senate Tuesday night. 

The bill is now making its way to President Joe Biden, who said in a statement Tuesday night that he would sign the bill into law. 

“If we need to pivot, we will, but at this point, we haven’t seen any reason to,” Clarkson said. 

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