Virgin America Latest to Highlight Tech Stars in Ad Campaign

Pandora, Pitchfork, Gilt Group Founders Front Airline's New Push

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To help set apart its in-flight experience from the competition, Virgin America is launching a campaign featuring cultural influencers who largely hail not from Hollywood but from Silicon Valley.

Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Gilt Groupe co-founders
Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Gilt Groupe co-founders
Among the stars of the new push -- which has been dubbed Virgin America 'Originals' -- are Tim Westergren, the cofounder of Pandora; Ryan Schreiber, Founder of Pitchfork; Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Co-Founders of Gilt Group; Xeni Jardin, co-Editor of BoingBoing.net; and Ji Lee, Independent Artist and Creative Strategist of Facebook.

The idea is to have these folks help shape elements of Virgin's in-flight experience. For example, Pitchfork's Mr. Schreiber curated a soundtrack for fliers using the flight's 4,000 track music library, while Ms. Maybank and Ms. Wilkis Wilson from Gilt curated a new sandwich offering being served onboard.

There are some non-tech stars featured, too, such as chefs and others who have been innovators in their own right, including the company's own CEO Richard Branson and Virgin Galatic Pilot Mark Stucky, and actor-turned-civil servant Kal Penn.

To promote the originals, the campaign, which is being handled by San Francisco-based shop Eleven, includes a website revamp, digital banners and social-media executions as well as out-of -home advertising. The outdoor ads include the wrap of a a San Francisco public transit tunnel, and in New York, Times Square digital billboards running a feed of text and images tweeted directly from Virgin America flights.

The use of so many heavy-hitters from the tech world has become a bit of a trend for marketers. In order to connect with consumers, marketers are increasingly turning to business stars, thinkers and inventors -- and in some cases they are doing so over Hollywood celebrities, who are costlier and run the risk of seeming less authentic.

The potential downside is that some of them aren't exactly household names and might not be recognized by the average consumer. But for marketers like Virgin, using a tech star in marketing could be a way to suggest it's cutting edge, and address a loyal fanbase rather than the masses.

Gap featured Foursquare cofounders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai in its 2010 holiday campaign the same year Ogilvy put Twitter co-founder Biz Stone in ads for Stoli vodka.

That laid the ground for another spate of Silicon Valley stars to appear in ads. Best Buy, in a campaign by MDC Partners' CP&B, ditched the celeb-heavy idea that fueled its 2011 Super Bowl ad featuring Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne and replaced those folks with brainiacs from Silicon Valley. Those included Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, Square co-founder Jim McKelvey and Philippe Kahn, who is credited with building the world's first camera phone.

Recently, J. Crew has featured Tumblr's founder David Karp in its ads and retailer Uniqlo has featured Leandra Medine, the woman behind fashion go-to blog The Man Repeller.

Whether Foursquare's Mr. Crowley actually wears Gap tees or buys video games at Best Buy isn't clear. But in the case of Virgin, it was critical to the airline that it was authentic about the folks appearing in the ads.

Virgin America's VP-Marketing Luanne Calvert, who arrived at the airline about 10 months ago after spending time in Silicon Valley, told Ad Age that in strategizing this latest campaign, "the two key criteria were people who were avid fliers who appreciated our product" and "people who had done something original in their area." She added "a lot of our fliers do tend to come from Silicon Valley" so it was natural to feature so many tech stars in its ads.

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