Lists & Rankings

WestJet: Friendly skies and then some

More loved than Apple.

westjet665A bride and groom fly to a foreign city to be married—only to find her wedding dress has gone missing. The baggage handlers contracted by the carrier never loaded it on the plane, they learn. When the flight staff hear the couple’s plight, they band together to buy the frantic bride a brand new $1,500 gown. Wedding saved.

The heartwarming climax of the latest Hollywood rom-com? Nope, just a real-life happy ending for one couple flying WestJet, according to the firm’s founding shareholder and board chair, Clive Beddoe. He told the tale to authors Jeannette Hanna and Alan Middleton for their book Ikonica: A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape, explaining that the staffers didn’t have to ask their bosses for the green light because the company’s ethics-driven culture puts a premium on do-the-right-thing customer service. (Compare that to the infamously bad airline service suffered by Canadian musician Dave Carroll, whose $3,500 guitar was broken while travelling on United Airlines in 2009: Carroll’s YouTube song about the experience, “United Breaks Guitars,” did lasting damage to the company’s image.)

Founded in 1996 as Canada’s answer to no-frills carrier Southwest Airlines, WestJet borrowed the U.S. firm’s commitment to having a positive company culture. That approach extends to both customers—whom they refer to as “guests”—and to employees, who benefit from a generous profit-sharing program that lets them buy WestJet shares with up to 20% of their paycheques. The company matches their contributions one-to-one.

In the Reputation Institute survey, Westjet ranked second among homegrown companies and 16th overall—ahead of companies like Kraft Foods, IBM and even Apple. The airline scored highly in perceptions of authenticity and good corporate governance—areas Canadians value even more than our U.S. counterparts do, says John Miziolek, president of Toronto’s Reset Branding. And it’s earned plenty of positive word-of-mouth support by doing its best to smooth the nerve-fraying experience of air travel—the long wait times, the heightened emotions—with friendly service, says Hanna, a partner at Toronto branding firm Trajectory.

The company’s feel-good image extends to its playful social-media presence, which helps endear it to younger flyers, says Miziolek. During the 2012 holiday season, a YouTube video of a Christmas WestJet flashmob in which hundreds of elves, snowmen and volunteers sang and danced for passengers waiting for a red-eye flight to Calgary and announced a surprise, new flight to the North Pole garnered nearly half a million views. (“‘Hey, we should try something like this too,’ said no one ever at Air Canada,” quipped one online commenter.) An April Fool’s prank video announcing new “child-free cabins”—don’t worry, kids get stowed as cargo—garnered even more hits.

“It’s unusual that an airline would have a YouTube channel where they post stuff other than corporate rhetoric,” notes Miziolek.

But he adds that in Canada, at least, consumers seem to have low expectations of airlines, so upstarts like WestJet can virtually rewrite the rules.

“The bar is really low,” he says. “Air Canada cannot compete with WestJet in terms of brand experience, nor do I think they even care.”

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Missing in Action: Lululemon

Lululemon recently suffered a setback thanks to the see-through yoga pants debacle, but overall the Canadian company has been nothing short of a global success story. So why isn’t it on our list?

It isn’t ranked because its revenues ($1.4 billion during fiscal 2012) weren’t high enough to include it in a list of Canada’s largest 50 companies, but we surveyed consumers about Lululemon anyway, and found that its score isn’t as high as its global profile might suggest. Lulu fares comparably to brands like Loblaws and BMO, but Rob Jekielek of the Reputation Institute says its score shows room for improvement. The company ranks high on delivering a positive consumer experience and product, but consumers’ emotional connection with the brand is highly polarized—younger consumers tend to be enthusiastic, responding positively to its trendy image, while older Canadians don’t feel a connection.

“There’s a lot of negative and a lot of positive,” he says.