2008 Creative Marketers: Virgin America

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While American domestic airlines are becoming notorious for taking away peanuts and charging for checked baggage, Virgin America is trading its previously free disposable headsets for custom-designed, reusable magenta versions that, while costing $2 a pop, match the planes' mood lighting. For the one-year-old airline, even cost cutting solutions align with its characteristic style. That commitment to design and customer experience is what puts Virgin America on the Creative Marketers list, and helped earn the company Travel + Leisure's honor of best domestic airline and Condé Nast Traveler's best business and first class service.

The airline's shameless use of pink might be a clue that Virgin America has a decidedly different vision for domestic air travel. In addition to bold, playful palettes, its planes are outfitted with 12 phases of mood lighting, power outlets, leather seats designed by a racecar driver, and the Red personal entertainment system with more than 300 MP3s, on-demand movies and games, seat-to-seat chat and the capability to order and purchase food from an on-screen menu—at fares competitive with budget airlines like Southwest and JetBlue. Plane design also cushions the airline from the sky-rocketing fuel costs that are driving up operational costs and forcing its competitors to redefine their business. VA's planes make up the newest domestic fleet in the country and are up to 30 percent more fuel efficient than other domestic airlines, says VP of marketing Porter Gale.

Attention to design and the brand's overall ethos springs from the Virgin Group's super-personality, founder Sir Richard Branson, who can be called the airline's muse, but not its owner. Virgin America licenses the brand from Virgin Group, a minority investor, due to federal regulations against foreign ownership of a domestic airline. By law, the airline must be U.S. owned and operated—New York-based Cyrus Capital Partners and L.A.-based Black Canyon Capital are its lead investors.

"We certainly try to follow some of the assets of the Virgin brand—we use brevity and wit and some humor and we're not afraid to push it—that comes out of Richard Branson's philosophy," says Gale, a veteran of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners who came to VA after running her own marketing and communications firm, the Porter Gale Group. "He's a consumer champion and he comes in and changes industries. He's trying to banish mediocrity. That philosophy really filters throughout our organization."

Starting with flights from San Francisco to New York and Los Angeles, Virgin America has grown to serve seven cities. Earlier this year, the airline submitted applications to expand service to Chicago's O'Hare and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. Gale says the airline's expansion goal—30 destinations in five years—focuses on major cities with good load factors to ensure full flights to stay efficient and maintain competitive fares.

New York's Anomaly initially won the Virgin America creative business in 2005—two years before the airline's first flight—with a pitch characteristic of the "new model" shop, ranging from plane designs to traditional ads. As Virgin America began to build its in-house design and marketing department, starting with Gale who joined after the airline's first flight, VA parted ways with Anomaly and opted for an agency closer to home.

Gale's first brand campaign, a relaunch in early 2008 with San Francisco-based agency Eleven, was an attempt to recreate the design experience, a visual demonstration of what it's like to be on the planes. The outdoor and print ads depicting in-flight amenities—for example, a woman blow-drying her hair at her seat thanks to the in-seat outlet—were all shot inside VA planes (like the picture of Gale here). Some bus shelters were even outfitted with pink mood lighting because evoking the passenger experience is what best illustrates Virgin America's difference, Gales believes. "I've overheard passengers equate boarding the plane to being on a spaceship or flying on an iPod," she says.

Read about HBO, another of our 2008 Creative Marketers.
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