How JetBlue Became One of the Hottest Brands in America

Q&A With Airline's Marketing Chief Marty St. George

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Marty St. George joined JetBlue Airways in 2006 as VP-planning and last year was promoted to his current post of senior VP-marketing and commercial, which basically means he's the top dog when it comes to all marketing activities for the airline.

Marty St. George
Marty St. George
Forest Hills-based JetBlue has prided itself on being a challenger brand and, in doing so, has become one of the hottest brands in America. But before landing at the fan favorite, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated Mr. St. George got a wealth of experience working at bigger airlines, including Northwest, U.S. Airways, and United Airlines, where had had two different stints, one handling schedule planning and one later in the marketing department.

Recently, Mr. St. George, who's also a prolific tweeter among marketers (follow him at @martysg), spent some time chatting with Advertising Age about why his new ad agency, Mullen, is such a great fit, his view on consolidation in the ad business and their plans for attracting business customers to the airline.

Ad Age: You recently made an agency change, moving your account from WPP's JWT to Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned Mullen after a review. Sometimes from the outside, it's unclear why marketers choose the agencies they do, so can you take us behind the process a bit and explain why you went with Mullen?

Mr. St. George: It was a very traditional pitch process. We sent out a [request for proposal], got a lot of responses, did a shortlist. We were really impressed by Mullen's response to the RFP and throughout the pitch process, they surprised us. We didn't really expect Mullen to win but they did a great pitch.

The cultures of the two companies match up incredibly well. JetBlue from the beginning has been a challenger brand, and Mullen has that street-fighter mentality that fits well with JetBlue. In terms of capabilities, there were [a couple] areas that put them over the top. Their communications planning was fantastic, when we looked for a new partner, that was a strong part of it. One of the things that was also high on our list was integration.

JWT and Mediacom did a good job of working together but we felt we could get more integration than we got from them. What was great about Mullen is as we sat through the pitch process, you couldn't really tell in the room who was creative, who was media, who was planning -- everyone in the agency was equally adept about talking about all disciplines.

One reason integration is important to us is, we've been publicly reported as $30 million [in ad spending], which we've never confirmed, and we're up against one of our biggest competitors, Southwest, spending four or five times that. We really feel that we got the level of integration from Mullen that could get $2 or $3 worth of impact for every $1 we spent. And when we did the reference checking with some of their other accounts, particularly Zappos, we found they had a track record of moving the needle.

Ad Age: Having worked at United and U.S. Airways, what's your view of all the ongoing consolidation going on in the airline industry right now?

Mr. St. George: We think it's good for JetBlue. The thing that's interesting about JetBlue is there are few airlines that have legitimately created a brand, and we think we have done that. Our brand is founded on differentiation -- XM Radio, leather, five consecutive J.D. Power awards and the most legroom of any airline, which is something we talk about in our advertising right now. These are attributes our competitors don't talk about and one thing we are not is a commoditized brand. Nothing we see in the consolidation efforts makes us think anything other than that strategy is very successful. Capacity reduction creates more opportunity for us, so we think it's good news.

Ad Age: Where is JetBlue with wireless these days? And what role does technology play now in consumer experience?

Mr. St. George: We have wireless on one airplane and my expectation is, in the next few months, we'll be making an announcement about it. I can't tip anything about it, but we've got interesting plans for it. Wireless has been a tough space for everybody. ... This industry has a habit of adding-in product attributes that don't really add up. We recognize that what the wireless world will be in two years onboard is really different than right now. People are using [wireless] for in-flight entertainment, their computer or iPad, and we don't have that exact need because of the 36 channels [JetBlue offers]. At the same time, we have a customer base skewed younger, and more affluent, and we have done a good deal of research on the topic. We are down to the final stages of making a recommendation.

Ad Age: It seems like the bulk of JetBlue's traffic is from leisure travel. Are you planning to make a bigger play for the corporate travel market?

Mr. St. George: It was a big conversation during the briefing process with Mullen. A relatively small percentage of our business base is business customers but we need to grow that. It was a big chunk of the process we went through with all the agencies ... we're confident based on what we've seen that we'll be able to attract new consumers without alienating the current customers. We were joking during the pitch process about our competitors that have stock photo of a city, with some copy and a price. We have a differentiated brand and we need a creative and communications strategy to match.

Ad Age: One possible casualty of all the consolidation in the industry is loyalty programs, which are now being combined. Will we be seeing anything new from JetBlue on that front?

Mr. St. George: We just relaunched our loyalty program in November 2009, and we call it TrueBlue. The new one is very responsive to business customers. We have a campaign coming out for it in a few months that will appear in New York and Boston. And that's not done by JWT or Mullen, by the way, it's by Carlson Marketing in Minneapolis, who is our agency of record on the loyalty side.

With the new program there are two core attributes we think are revolutionary. One, you get points based on how much money you spend, not how much you fly, which we think is really responsive to a business customer. And from a redemption perspective, it's not just the 25,000 that you might never be able to redeem. Every seat on every flight is available. Right now in existing loyalty programs you basically fly when the airlines wants you to fly. We did a soft launch in November and we'll be doing a hard launch this summer, probably.

Ad Age: You clearly have a pretty transparent approach to your job, doing things like tweeting meetings with agencies during the pitch process. Have you ever run into issues with your high-ups about conducting your job so publicly?

Mr. St. George: There's never been an issue. It's a very open brand. One thing we told the agency in the pitches is this is a company that runs on values, and every crew member knows our core values. We're not hiding behind a curtain here. That's a big part of the brand personality. Fundamentally this is a brand with a customer base that skews young and affluent, they are on social media, and we want to be where our customers are.

Ad Age: Logistically, how does JetBlue do social media? Does it take up a ton of the company's resources, and what's the interplay between who handles it now?

Mr. St. George: We don't have an incredibly large amount of resources for Twitter specifically. It's not anyone's full-time job, it's something people do in conjunction with their other jobs.

Our Twitter desk is a much more economical way to communicate with customers than handling emails or phone calls; you can handle for our five Twitter streams at a time vs. taking one phone call at a time. Normally we have seven people who spend time on the Twitter feed, and none of them full time. And we have multiple disciplines [participating], someone from TrueBlue, someone from corporate communications, etc; it's all people who have different skills.

We built a database of most common questions and answers and it's not often that people have to make a phone call to someone else within company and say "hey we got this tweet, what do we do with it?" People call it social media but we actually see it as the opposite of media; it's direct communication with the brand on a one-to-one level.

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