In 1992, two successful CEOs found themselves in a dispute over the use of a slogan that they both thought of, so instead of taking their case to court, they decided to end their dispute by putting on one of the most epic arm wrestling competitions in history.
Southwest Airlines was known for thinking outside of the box and using unique marketing strategies to attract customers. Through the 70s and 80s, Southwest became one of the top airlines in the country, offering lower fares and flights between specific locations. The company changed their catchphrase multiple times over the years, and in 1990, when they decided to go with the “Just Plane Smart,” they weren’t aware that an aviation company out of Greenville, South Carolina had already been using a similar slogan.
15 months into using their new slogan, Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher got a call from Kurt Herwald, CEO of South Carolina’s Stevens Aviation. Herwald informed the massive airline that they had been using the slogan “Plane Smart” before Southwest thought it up. Herwald wanted to avoid a long, drawn-out legal battle over the rights to use the slogan, so he proposed that the two CEOs meet for a widely publicized arm wrestling competition, and whoever won would get to use the slogan. In addition, the loser of each of the three rounds would have to donate $5,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Ronald McDonald House.
So, on March 20, 1992, Kelleher and Herwald went head to head in the “Malice in Dallas” competition. The two CEOs publicized the event and a big crowd turned out to watch the showdown in person. The entire event was theatrical and over the top, and after three rounds, Southwest’s Kelleher wound up losing to Stevens’ Herwald. In the end, however, Herwald decided to let Kelleher still use the slogan in a sign of good faith, and what started out as a way to dispute the use of a slogan turned into one of the greatest publicity stunts in history.
“There's too much litigation in business today and not enough leadership,” said Herwald at the time. “We need more guys like Herb Kelleher who are willing to say we don't need to go to court all the time.”
Both companies benefitted greatly from the arm wrestling competition, with Southwest Airlines saying that it generated around $6 million in publicity.