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Risks and Sky-High Rewards

  • “For about $10,000 in spend, we generated almost $10 million in impressions. We had captured the moment in a fun, creative way.”

Marty St. George


The air travel business is risky on multiple levels, and seeing the numerous mergers and disappearances of once-proud airline brands in recent years shows that certain worst-case scenarios have been realized. But relative newcomer JetBlue shows time and time again that a bold marketing and service philosophy based on that never-gets-old principle of putting the customer experience above all else can still keep an airline brand flying high.

EVP of Commercial and Planning, Marty St. George pilots JetBlue’s efforts to reach new passengers and retain loyal ones, and wise risk-taking is a cornerstone of his continued success. The result is one knockout promotion after another. We focused on that in this interview, and I also capitalized on the chance to ask him about some of the other factors keeping JetBlue in the upper stratosphere relative to their competition.

What is the biggest marketing risk you’ve taken at JetBlue? How did it play out?

I’ve taken a lot of risks, but I think the biggest was the “Election Protection” promo we ran in New York during Fall 2012. It went out to the folks who say things like: “If my candidate loses I’m moving to Canada.” The promo revolved around JetBlue giving away 2,012 free tickets out of the country. It was risky because election promos are inherently risky; voting is a sacred duty, and there are many examples of brands commercializing the election to their detriment. Luckily, we played it perfectly and got more buzz than we ever imagined, and zero blowback.

Any others you’re particularly proud of?

We did a promotion called “Carmageddon” when the 405 Freeway was closed in L.A. We flew for a day back and forth between Burbank and Long Beach. I need to give my team a lot of credit for this one. When they brought the idea to me, I said: “I can’t imagine this getting buzz but feel free to do it, if you can do it cheaply.” The result? For about $10,000 in spend, we generated almost $10 million in impressions. We had captured the moment in a fun, creative way.

JetBlue CEO David Barger famously posed the question ‘How do we stay small as we get big?’ to the JetBlue team. As CMO, how do you take on this challenge?

Every leader at JetBlue takes full ownership of that challenge. There are elements of the JetBlue experience that naturally lend themselves to helping us stay small. We don’t ask our people to do anything that we wouldn’t do. For example, when leaders take a JetBlue flight and the plane arrives at the gate, we become a full-on hands-dirty part of the cleaning crew alongside the flight attendants and pilots. On the holidays, many of us work at the airport helping customers during the busiest days. But specifically as CMO, I am focused on making sure that our mission and values come through in every communication we do, both internal and external. When we start looking like a faceless conglomerate to our people, we’ll have lost the battle.

What steps do you take to better understand and communicate with your customers?

I’m very lucky in that our founders gave us a mission and a set of values that are core to our DNA. Our mission is to inspire humanity, and part of what we try to accomplish is that personal connection between the brand and our customers. Our customers feel personal ownership of the brand, and they’re very vocal about the things they love and the things they want us to change.

How do you evaluate/measure the success of your marketing?

On a macro level we look at brand metrics for ourselves and our competitors. On a micro level, we measure every dollar we spend digitally and translate it into a cost-per-booking. We share our metrics with our media partners and expect them to help improve campaigns and targets to get our CPB lower.

Has marketing become more complex for you? How are you dealing with that complexity?

We deal with it by keeping up with technology, and by finding partners in that space who can help keep us current. In fact, every year we have a “digital day” where we invite current and potential marketing partners in to pitch our entire team. We’ve found several exciting new technologies and channels that way, just through an open “casting call.”

Do you agree with the notion that marketing is everything and everything is marketing? If so, how have you extended the boundaries of your job beyond the normal purview of the CMO?

Absolutely agree, and luckily at JetBlue we all recognize that the experience is the ultimate manifestation of the brand, and our people learn this on day one. How? Every month we hold an orientation for new crewmembers at our training center, and many senior leaders attend. When I speak at orientation, my first line is to welcome everyone to the marketing team, since everyone who touches a customer owns a piece of the brand.

Further reading:

Seth Godin, The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable

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