I was looking forward to interviewing a marketing executive from the airline industry, and speaking with Virgin America’s CMO Porter Gale was no disappointment.
As usual, we started the conversation by setting some context – in this case we are talking about a new airline which started flying just one and a half years ago, has 28 airplanes, and 1,400 employees.
The motivation for Virgin to start a new airline in the US was driven primarily by the opportunity that presented itself to redefine the category in the face of rapidly deteriorating customer expectations. I think that is putting it rather mildly – and would have categorized the state of the industry as one in which the service providers seem determined to make their customers lives’ miserable while they are with them. At any rate, it was a perfect fit for Richard Branson’s philosophy for Virgin companies to be customer champions.
We spent a fair amount of time discussing the essence of the Virgin America brand, and how they are making deliberate efforts to humanize the brand and the service. In order to ensure consistency of this experience throughout all the customer touch-points, and to get buy-in from all the employees, they have a very rigorous hiring and training process. Showing respect and a human face to the customer may seem like common sense, but it is a tough thing to scale – it requires the right culture and zero tolerance for mediocrity. Another important aspect of Virgin America’s success in humanizing their brand is not to brainwash people into telling the corporate story, but rather to empower them to tell their own stories. To support that personal passion they also continuously focus on making sure that they have a product that employees can be proud of – so it is a big closed loop system.
Porter spoke at length about the importance of social media in customer support, branding, innovation, and marketing. From how they monitor everything that is being said about them and deploy customer recovery actions when someone twitters or blogs about a bad experience during flight, to how they empower people to act as they see fit when they see some negative comment online. For some reason they attract a very tech-savvy crowd, which makes it a natural choice for them to social-media-fy their marketing, or to use Porter’s words “to explore the digital space, look at all of the trends that are happening, the social media changes, and find more ways to engage and have deeper relationships with people who love the brand through digital.”
Another interesting aspect of Virgin America’s marketing strategy is that they find themselves to be not just be an airline or travel company, but also a media company (which I think will be increasingly true for companies who are successful in harnessing consumer movements, communities and tribes). In the case of Virgin America, they were basically able to fund the launch of a new city through a paid media partnership with HBO.
Other topics we covered include:
- How there are totally new career paths in marketing
- How they are continuously trying to reinvent the category
- The importance of fairness in how you deal with customer problems
- How they focus hard on ensuring brand consistency throughout the travel “ribbon” – including the flight experience, the website, check-in, and where they can, even the terminal experience.
- How Wifi in the airline industry is a true game changer
- The role of advertising in awareness building when launching new markets and new offerings and the shift to social media after awareness is created.
- How they were able to create a movement before they even flew – rallying people around the cause to let Virgin America fly
When you have an airline and passengers write to you to tell you that they wished the flight was longer, or that they rescheduled their honeymoon so they could fly with you – you know you are doing something right. I wish I could interview some other CMO’s from the industry to get their perspective.
As usual, you can listen to the podcast on the CMO 2.0 Site and we will start posting transcripts next week.