Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Clever, creative, effective
Another way to settle a dispute, from 30 years ago. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Imagine the scene: a packed auditorium, a raucous crowd, and two larger-than-life CEOs at the center of attention (right where they were happiest).
Only, it wasn't a TED Talk or an on-stage fireside chat with the likes of Chris Anderson or Kara Swisher.
Instead, it was an arm-wrestling match between the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, and the CEO of a much smaller airline, Stevens Aviation, Kurt Herwald.
They called it the Malice in Dallas, and it took place 30 years ago in March 1992.
The genesis was the fact that Southwest Airlines had rolled out a new ad campaign using the slogan, "Just Plane Smart." The only problem was that Stevens Aviation was already using the slogan.
Now, as the names alone might tell you: Southwest and Stevens Aviation weren't exactly in the same business. Southwest, which you likely know if you live in the U.S., was (and is) a low-fare passenger carrier; Stevens had more to do with maintenance and charters.
But, a slogan is a slogan, and one of the basic rules of trademarks is that if you don't make an effort to defend them, you open yourself up to losing them, legally speaking.
So, when Herwald realized Kelleher had a reputation for being an irreverent showman, he had an idea. Rather than fight it out in court, where his airline would have been vastly outgunned, Herwald's airline wrote a letter to Kelleher:
We LOVE your new ads that use the clever, creative, effective "Plane Smart" theme! We can testify to its effectiveness since we've been using it in our own ads for a long time.
In the true fun-loving spirit on which Southwest Airlines was founded, we challenge you to a duel to see who gets to keep "Plane Smart" ... (Please—no lawyers!) ... We challenge you to a sleeves-up, best-two-out-of-three arm-wrestling match ...
Herwald had Kelleher pegged correctly, and the date was set. And as a publicity event it was—chef's kiss.
It was covered by all the national news, and President George H.W. Bush complimented both CEOs on their willingness to settle the dispute like this.
Plus, Southwest later estimated it not only saved $500,000 in legal fees that it would have incurred to defend a lawsuit, according to a review of the event by Harvard Law School (praising it as an exercise in win-win negotiations), but they also got about $6 million in free marketing and PR.
As for the wrestling match itself, on paper it should have been a mismatch.
Herwald was 38 and had been a champion weight lifter; Kelleher was 61, and a self-described "serious chain smoker," who slept four hours a night.
(Kelleher also made a big deal about how his only preparation for the event was to drink more Wild Turkey bourbon.)
In the end, Herwald won, but he gave the right to use the slogan to Southwest anyway. My guess is his airline wasn't all that invested in it to begin with, and it was probably a better deal for him to gain the long-lasting friendship and mentorship of Kelleher.
Anyway, we just passed the 30th anniversary, and I think it's a fun and notable event to remember. Plus, sharing the story last week about the Stanford negotiations study and my law school class reminded me of it once more.
But really, I think it's also a good lesson for today, when so many leaders and others are at each other's throats, and willing (even eager!) to let the most minor disputes develop into mini-armageddon.
Maybe there's room for humor. Maybe it doesn't really matter in the long run whether you prevail. And maybe not every dispute has to be a fight to the death.
For those who might have missed it, I’ve started including the one-click feedback links again, at the bottom of each newsletter. Plus, I thought I’d share how people reacted to yesterday’s newsletter, just for the heck of it. (Not sure I’ll do this every day, as it took a minute or five. But we’ll see; here’s yesterday’s):
Signal boost (Submit yours here!) ... Today's is from subscriber Eric Monacelli, who is senior director, product development for Marvel Games. (I found this really interesting.)
"I’d like to share my work with people ... I hit 5 years at Marvel Games. An interview was published recently and describes how I think about what I do." (Interview with Eric Monacelli in Gamesmith)
7 other things worth knowing today
President Biden agreed Wednesday to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure that US baby formula producers can acquire the material they need and launched a new US government airlift of formula from abroad. (NY Post)
Wildly unacceptable: It takes more than a month for sailors struggling with thoughts of suicide to get a mental health appointment, the Navy’s top enlisted leader told House lawmakers Wednesday. (Stars & Stripes)
A Chicago mother has been charged with child endangerment after a gun in her second grader’s backpack accidentally discharged at school, injuring a 7-year-old classmate, police said Wednesday. (AP)
Fourteen years after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy at the start of the financial crisis, the not-quite-dead bank is reaching the final remains of its last court cases in bankruptcy. (Bloomberg)
Both the "PharmaBro" (Martin Shkreli, remember him?) and Billy McFarland, who organized the disastrous Frye Festival in 2017, were released early from prison yesterday (to a halfway house, at least in Shkreli’s case). Their cases are unrelated, except in an "excesses of the early 2010s" thematic way. (Pitchfork)
A suspect in a 1988 sexual assault and killing of a 79-year-old woman in a small northern California community has been identified thanks to advanced DNA testing done on scrapings from the victim's fingernails, authorities said Tuesday. The district attorney said finding the evidence was like discovering a "needle in a haystack." (CBS News)
In what some are calling an epic 'Freudian slip,' former President George W. Bush accidentally called the invasion of Iraq 'wholly unjustified and brutal' while speaking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. ('The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq,' Bush said, before shaking his head and correcting himself. 'I mean, of Ukraine.') (Daily Mail)
Let’s add a bonus, in part because the rest of these have been rather serious today: Here’s video of the prime minister of Australia accidentally bowling over a young player in a friendly soccer game. (The kid was fine; it starts about 4 seconds into this video.)