A few years ago, JetBlue CEO David Barger challenged his staff with a seemingly antithetical question: “How do we stay small as we get big?”
Barger wanted to maintain JetBlue’s commitment to bring humanity back to air travel, but at the same time maintain the growth that had seen the company amass more than 14,000 crew members. One of the executives responsible for providing an answer was Marty St. George, senior VP-marketing and commercial strategy at JetBlue Airways.
“The most important strategy to keep yourself small is to make sure you focus on keeping it small. The minute you start taking it for granted and not making the effort to have that one-to-one connection with your crew members, I think that’s when you start losing it,” St. George told CMO.com in an exclusive interview. “When I came here in 2006, we had around 8,000 crew members, and now we’re at 15,000. I find it tough, and I know [Barger] finds it tough, to know everyone.”
Indeed, the higher-ups at the airline go out of their way to learn the names and faces of its crew and keep the culture of JetBlue small, all the while growing and grabbing a bigger share of the marketplace.
“I think the efforts on that front involve having every single one of those 15,000 still feeling a direct connection to the company,” St. George said. “Every officer and a good chunk of the directors are assigned to adopt a city. We have this thing called TLC [The Leadership Connection], where we go out to cities every quarter, and there’s a day or two of open Q&A. We try to make sure that they know they are important to us.”
Another big part of the company’s success comes from focusing its marketing strategy on customer service and interaction, which really took off with JetBlue’s foray into social media.
St. George said that JetBlue fell into its strong social media presence by accident. The company was facing operational challenges in 2007 and was looking for a way to better interact with customers to make things better. He admits he was “absolutely shocked” at the depths at which customers wanted to engage. While JetBlue does use social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to promote offers, more of its time is spent working on customer service, answering questions, dealing with complaints, and talking in real time.
“With the personality of the JetBlue brand, which is founded on a mission statement of community, our first goal is to fly people around safely, but we also want to be a brand that treats its customers like humans and not seat fillers,” he said. “The travel business, in general, is a passionate business, and we found there was a lot of passion about JetBlue. People on social media talk about sports, they talk about politics, and they talk about travel. We recognized that social media represented a completely unexpected opportunity to really build our brand image and humanize our customers. We are at a point where you can actually have a one-on-one relationship with customers who want to try to create that.”
Social media outlets are also a way for St. George and the JetBlue team to learn of issues almost immediately. For example, all JetBlue flights offer 36 channels of DirecTV, and he said that there have been times when customers have tweeted about problems with the live feed so the problem can be fixed right away. Another time he saw a photo on Picasa of a plane with condensation on the window.
Before social media, the customer would tell someone on the plane, the pilot would record the problem in a logbook, and it could take a few days before anyone who could fix it actually knew there was a problem.
Today, JetBlue has more than 766,000 likes on Facebook and 1.7 million Twitter followers, has recorded almost 2.26 million views on YouTube, and is seeing its SoFly site, where customers can add photos and stories about their JetBlue trips, take off.
Planes And Trains
During his career, St. George has been responsible for a variety of marketing and network planning in the airlines industry. He joined JetBlue in July 2006 as vice president, network planning, and prior to that, he served as managing director of marketing planning for United Airlines.
Interestingly, the route he took to enter airlines marketing was anything but direct. St. George actually graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986, and thought a career in that field was more likely.
“It was an unusual path. I realized I would not be a very good engineer and ended up trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my life,” he said. “I think if you would have asked my mother, she would have told you that whatever I was going to do, it would be with something that moved—with planes, trains, or automobiles.”
She was right. While at MIT, St. George worked with someone who was doing research on network modeling for railroads. This allowed him to use his math skills in a much more interesting way. Early jobs included working at a railroad and a railroad-consulting firm, but he soon found himself looking for another career track. That’s when he joined United Airline.
Although he enjoyed his early experiences in the airlines industry, St. George experienced plenty of ups and downs working with United.
“I came [to JetBlue] from a competitor company that had just gone through bankruptcy, and when you come from a broken brand, your dream is that you want to fix it,” he said. “I knew we had something fantastic here, and my first goal was to make sure I got deep in this culture and deep in the brand as quickly as possible. It was to bring in a good feeling but at the same time, amplify the great things about JetBlue.”
With a customer base that tends to be young, hip, and tech-savvy, St. George reveals that more than half of JetBlue’s money is spent digitally. Understanding that its customer run their lives day-to-day, hour-to-hour, in the digital realm, being in that space gives the company the greatest potential for customers who are living 24/7 in the digital arena.
One of its most popular digital innovations occurred last June when JetBlue created “Get Away With It,” the first-ever online game show using Skype as a way to get the word out about JetBlue Getaways product, which offers flights, hotels, wheels, and more in the vacation package category.
“When we originally conceived this, we didn’t know if customers would do it. They had to do a pre-interview, [and] we kept them on hold for 20 minutes, but we had customers beating down the doors,” St. George said. “We did it a week, but we could have gone six or longer. The customers were very engaged.
During the course of five days, the “Get Away With It” game show attracted 93,000 total live stream views and 1.4 million unique page views, helping the company achieve its goal of increased familiarity of the JetBlue Getaways brand. Additionally, with an average viewing time of the game show being 10 minutes, 20 seconds, it was the equivalent of nearly 32,000 commercial television ads in terms of customer viewing time.
St. George works closely with CEO Barger and the rest of his C-level brethren (everyone is housed in one corporate building) to deliver a consistent brand messaging.
“We spend an awful amount of time together, and I look at it as we spend so much time together, how could it ever go off track?” St. George said. “I think the core is, from the day that Dave started JetBlue, everyone knows the values of the brand and it’s built into our DNA.”
A side strategy of JetBlue’s marketing efforts is to focus on programs that gravitate to what’s going on in society. One of its most successful campaigns demonstrating this was a 2009 campaign called “Welcome Big Wigs,” which featured three tongue-in-cheek videos that were informational about the JetBlue jetting doctrine (leather seats, seatback TV, free snacks) and offered some comic relief on the financial state of affairs at the time.
“The idea came out of a passenger at LaGuardia Airport, who had flown private planes all his life, who didn’t know how to use a kiosk. This snowballed into a way of welcoming bigwig CEOs to the world of commercial aviation with our elite experience,” St. George explained.
Two years later, the company responded to the weekend construction on Los Angeles’ 405 Freeway with a special $4.05 fare that would shuttle people back and forth on 20-minute flights between Long Beach and Burbank. The program was named in honor of Carmageddon, the phrase that went along with the chaos that L.A. residents expected.
“It was absolute pandemonium. The flight sold out almost immediately, and we were the talk of the town,” St. George said. “We were incredibly loved in L.A., and it enhanced our ‘cool factor.’ The best part of it was we were on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams saying, ‘The marketing geniuses at JetBlue have done it again.’ Things like that help build a brand.”
St. George doesn’t consider himself your typical CMO-type. Ideas can come from anyone from its general counsel (as was the case with Carmageddon), to its e-commerce manager, to the pilots and crew themselves. He also concerns himself a great deal with staying connected to as many people as he can to see what might percolate from the conversations in the form of new JetBlue marketing initiatives.
“When I fly around, one of my missions is to spend time with our front-line people. I do spend more time than I probably would like on Twitter, and a very big chunk of my followers are crew members, but that’s another great indicator of how to keep the company small as we get bigger,” he said. “The biggest challenge is [having] a small [marketing] team. We don’t have a lot of people to work on these projects, and finding the time to do the day-to-day things with keeping the planes flying and keep the bookings coming in, but also finding time to do the really cool experience stuff, is challenging.”
Still, St. George and JetBlue has managed to find success with the latter. While an overwhelming majority of airlines have been very homogenous in their approach, JetBlue has managed to deliver the “wow” factor and create an airline brand that the 21st century passenger is excited about traveling on.