Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe
For Business and Personal Success

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Teaching Whales to Fly


It was the brainstorm of GSD&M. The idea’s champion was the agency’s creative director and v.p., Tim McClure. The mission was classified Top Secret. The trick was somehow to convince Sea World of Texas that Southwest Airlines had already approved this daring concept while at the same time making Southwest believe that Sea World had already blessed it. George Becker, then chairman of Sea World of Texas, says, “When GSD&M was pitching the Sea World account to us, the real punch in the presentation was the unveiling of a huge model plane painted like Shamu.” McClure says, “There was an audible gasp from everyone in the Sea World presentation room when we undraped the Shamu model. No one could believe that this was being proposed.” Becker remembers saying to Spence, “Roy, can you really pull that off? I’ve never heard of an airline doing anything as bold as this before.” “Yes, everyone at Southwest Airlines has approved it,” Spence assured him. Well, that wasn’t exactly the case . . . The idea was to cement the Sea World–Southwest Airlines promotional partnership by painting a plane like a killer whale. But before the Sea World presentation, McClure was sent on a mission to share the idea with Colleen Barrett (the ad people’s confidante and “point man” to Kelleher) and ask whether they needed to get Herb’s approval. Colleen didn’t blink: “No. Go pitch it to Sea World. If they like it, he’ll like it.”

When Kelleher finally found out about the idea, he more than liked it; he loved it. But it wasn’t until Becker and Kelleher met privately to sign the pact that both learned the truth. Basking in the irreverence and creativity inherent in the way the project was handled, Kelleher told Becker, “I didn’t know anything about the plane until we came down to San Antonio. It was only when McClure unveiled it that day that I saw it for the first time. I think what they were trying to do was entrap me, George, so I’d have to go along with the plan!”

Only a handful of people knew the purpose of the project, code-named “Project Friend.” Those who knew were sworn to secrecy. The material needed for Project Friend was not insignificant–a brand-new Boeing 737 and a lot of paint.

Several 737s were already in production for Southwest. The production schedule was changed so that flight testing on one of the planes, normally one of the last procedures, was conducted before it was painted. Meanwhile, Sea World’s director of zoology, Ed Asper, helped design the painting template so that the plane would accurately represent Shamu. GSD&M selected the design firm of Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, Inc., of Redmond, Washington to execute the final mechanical design and generate the computer templates. After three days of a sophisticated painting process in an isolated World War II–vintage B-52 hangar, Shamu One, a brand-new 737 painted to resemble a killer whale, emerged at midnight.

In the middle of the night on Monday, May 23, 1988, Shamu One was secretly flown to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. Later that day, the flying killer whale made its debut in San Antonio by buzzing over Sea World of Texas at a breathtaking twenty-five hundred feet with hundreds of cheering Sea World employees below! Shamu One’s inaugural flight then continued to Houston and Dallas. Over the next six days Shamu One completed a twenty-seven-city, coast-to-coast tour that included each of Southwest’s cities and New York.

Since Project Friend and the public’s positively outrageous response to Shamu One, Southwest has invested more than $140 million in airplane billboards–Shamu Two and Three; Lone Star One, painted to look like the Texas flag; and two other “flag” planes, Arizona One, and most recently, California One. Shamu Two and Three were commissioned when Anheuser-Busch bought the Sea World parks. August Busch said the flying billboard was one of the best advertising ideas he’d ever seen. We’ve already told you about the 1991 unveiling of Lone Star One to mark Southwest’s twentieth anniversary. Arizona One and California One joined Southwest’s fleet of “flag” planes in May 1994 and August 1995. In June 1996, Southwest unveiled Silver One, the seventh in the series of custom-painted jets and the first to sport an interior to match the 737-300’s gleaming body. At Southwest’s “Still Nuts Party,” close to two thousand employees, family and friends partying in the Dallas headquarters’ parking lot witnessed the stunning plane’s flyby to commemorate the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary. From the tail painted in Southwest’s signature gold, red and orange, a thin white pinstripe runs the length of the silver fuselage–a reminder, says Kelleher, “that Southwest encourages employees to color outside the lines.” The name Silver One and the twenty-fifth anniversary logo written in burgundy are the only other spots of color on the body of the jet. “Southwest’s painted planes offer more than good PR value,” says Tim McClure. “They have delighted people–children in particular–for years. And, while you generally don’t think about the plane you’re getting on, when people see these, they point them out. So I think it keeps the spirit alive out there. These planes speak to the Spirit of Southwest. What other company would have the guts to take the lead in painting one of these big monsters and having fun with it?”

Southwest’s flying billboards do much more than sell airplane tickets; they stir spirit in those who happen to look up and be touched by these inspirations in the sky. These planes also demonstrate the creative license that the advertising agencies have in their partnership with Southwest. The company’s painted planes, like all its marketing and advertising efforts, are not gimmicks; they are celebrations. They are intended to touch people’s emotions, whether through evoking the kid in all of us when we step into the belly of a killer whale or by awakening our dormant patriotism. More than anything, painting planes is nuts! Truly “invited guest” advertising.