JetBlue's Fares, Customer Experience Are Key to its Brand Building, Sales Success

Airline is Ad Age's Marketer of the Year 2002

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- A crew member stops to help a woman at the head of the queue with her luggage and they chat about her recovery from chemotherapy. A check-in agent extols the merits of Walt Disney
Photo: AP
Upstart JetBlue has gotten the details right.
World's Space Mountain to two young children and their mother. This is not a typical airport line. There is no moaning, no impatience. Everyone seems, well, happy.

We're in Terminal 6 at John F. Kennedy Airport, JetBlue Airways' terminal, and standing in this strangely contented queue it is easy to imagine we've stumbled into the set of a TV spot for the upstart airline.

For some, the personal attention and cozy vibes might seem schmaltzy, but for many customers, the unusual level of friendliness and helpfulness is a key to the JetBlue experience. The low fares, leather seats and the live TVs helped JetBlue grow seat sales -- the current load factor is about 85%, putting the JetBlue Airways Corp. about 10 percentage points ahead of any of its rival carriers. But it's the customer service that keeps the customers coming back and spreading the good word.

No. 1 reason
A recent survey undertaken by the marketing department showed that the No. 1 reason people tried JetBlue for the first time is its fares. Company CEO David Neeleman's central tenet is that JetBlue should be "the best coach at the best price." But the No. 1 reason people recommend the airline to their friends is service.

Just as Starbucks thrived initially on quality coffee, great service and smart PR, so JetBlue is soaring on its customers' experience rather than big ad budgets. And it's riding above the turbulence of

Two spots from JetBlue's TV ad campaign.
an industry where the No. 2 player, United Airlines, is squeezing concessions from its employees to avoid bankruptcy and the No. 3 carrier, Delta Air Lines, next year plans to launch a low-fare subsidiary to take on the likes of JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. JetBlue, meanwhile, reported net income of $12.2 million for the quarter ended in September, up more than 20% from a year earlier. This winning mixture of low price and high service has earned JetBlue the title of Advertising Age's Marketer of the Year.

"Experience is pitching for us," says Gareth Edmonson-Jones, JetBlue's vice president of corporate communications. "People tell our story because one of our staff goes out of their way to make their trip better or help them in some way. 60 Minutes'came to us this year because the producer loves flying JetBlue."

It's not just CBS' 60 Minutes. In the last 12 months JetBlue has enjoyed the kind of positive media coverage that other airlines can only dream about. Some of the coverage focused exclusively on the airline, such as the Oct. 14 Forbes cover piece that pondered, "JetBlue: What's the secret?" and emphasized the airline's impressive financials. Other reports held up JetBlue as an example in features on other subjects such as airline safety, corporate governance or customer service. The airline, which serves only snacks, even drew kudos recently from a restaurant critic -- Bryan Miller of The New York Times praised JetBlue for the special

Photo: Chris Cassidy
The JetBlue marketing team (l to r): Tim Claydon, Amy Curtis-McIntyre and Gareth Edmondson-Jones.
lengths to which its staff went to return a laptop that he had left on the plane. The JetBlue experience is the airline's sales story.

Jet Blue's CEO
More often than not, reports cite JetBlue's 42-year-old CEO as the architect of the experience. This is not surprising. Mr. Neeleman came up with the business model. Mr. Neeleman garnered the record launch fund of $130 million. Perhaps most crucially of all, Mr. Neeleman persuaded Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to give the new regional airline the slots at Kennedy Airport that enabled JetBlue to get in among the majors in a key location.

But the levels of customer satisfaction owe as much to the company's marketing minds -- Amy Curtis-McIntyre, vice president of marketing; Tim Claydon, vice president of sales and distribution; and Mr. Edmonson-Jones -- as they do to their charismatic leader.

They are loath to take anything away from their front man: After all, Mr. Neeleman's boyish good looks, clean-living Mormon lifestyle and quotability are among the best weapons in their marketing armory. As all three marketing executives were hired from similar roles at Virgin Atlantic Airways with its publicity rocket of a CEO, Richard Branson, they know all about the value of a press-magnetic magnate.

But on separate occasions both Ms. Curtis-McIntyre and Mr. Edmonson-Jones refer to the periods before and after JetBlue's early 2000 launch as "subversive," hinting there were times when they weren't exactly reading off Mr. Neeleman's hymn sheet.

Launch ad budget
"The launch ad budget was a joke," Ms. Curtis-McIntyre says of the $12.8 million her department had

at its disposal. (JetBlue spent $10 million in the first eight months of 2002, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR, up 44.9% from the same period in 2001.) "We knew we had to do something with the product, the Web and PR. But it felt tough -- we spent a lot of time in the pub being subversive. David had done the numbers and felt our target market was the 8 million people in a five-mile radius around JFK, but I believed the Manhattanite early-adopter would be a big part of our audience.

"I don't advocate marketers being their own target audience," she adds. "But in this case I felt I needed to inject my life as a New Yorker into the brand we were trying to create. This wouldn't just be about price but about eliminating the frustrations that my friends and I felt every time we got on a plane."

"David felt bargain hunters were our calling," adds Mr. Edmonson-Jones. "We were saying, 'We should set our sights higher.' That first year felt subversive because we were saying, 'This is about bringing the humanity back to air travel,' and everyone else was saying, 'Aren't we just low fares?' And we were like 'No! If you just pick it on price, you'll be destroyed.' It took a while, but finally everyone agreed we had to think and talk product, too."

Manhattan fliers
The marketers were proved right. Manhattanites have flocked to the airline in the thousands. A recent analysis of JetBlue's customers showed that more of them come from 10021 -- an Upper East Side, Manhattan ZIP code -- than any other location. While we're in the parking lot at Terminal 6, the mildly obsessive Ms. Curtis-McIntyre does a less scientific study, scanning license plates, noting that "there are at least 12 Connecticut license plates on very expensive cars."

While the aging bargain hunters and college kids are a big part of the current customer base, just as Mr. Neeleman envisioned, young professionals and affluent consumers have embraced the brand too. "Grandma was always going to find us, but we've

Photo: AP
Live in-flight TV has made JetBlue truly different.
converted the travel snob," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre.

The travel snob's affection for JetBlue may owe something to the airline's clean but retro styling. "At least 50% of my focus initially was on the image," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre, who cites her inspirations for the brand's image as the new Volkswagen Beetle, Starbucks, Target Corp. and the '70s incarnations of Coca-Cola Co.'s Coke. "Gareth and I had the opportunity to start from scratch and create something really stylish but campy and emotional. Something that felt right to the staff as well as to us."

Mr. Neeleman had already been thinking leather seats but wanted dark leather. Ms. Curtis-McIntyre argued for the light gray that the airline chose to use. "I just said we should let our people be the color and the life," she says.

Flight crew ambassadors
They spent a long time working on the flight crews' uniforms also, researching what they would want -- "they are our ambassadors, the uniform has to say the right thing" -- and the aircraft paint jobs. "We went to the mechanics and asked them what works for them. They told us what was easiest to clean and most efficient, as well as what looked good. It might seem a small thing, but it helped them take ownership."

Then there were the well-documented decisions to go without in-flight meals, to just give out snacks and to have live TV in the cabin. "The point was just that we were so open to everything," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre. "We didn't say, 'Let's save money.' We said, 'Why not not give them food?' When we came across Live TV, we were like 'No one's done that before, and that's why we have to do it.'"

Perhaps it was the Virgin Atlantic background -- Virgin relied heavily on PR -- or perhaps it was the fact that both Ms. Curtis-McIntyre and Mr. Edmonson-Jones once plied their trade for WPP Group's Hill & Knowlton, but they saw all the industry firsts, such as the TVs, as the perfect platform to market the brand through PR.

"Advertising is the last thing you bring to the mix," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre. "You start by getting the product right, getting your attitude right, getting everyone internally understanding the mission. Then you move to telling the story through PR. You build the advertising last, and that way you can live on realistic budgets."

Substance is crucial
Mr. Edmonson-Jones adds that substance is crucial. "This is the biggest aviation market and the biggest media market," he says. "But you need substance for your stories. Live TV on planes is a real story that you can work with. The [Hain Celestial Group's Terra Blues chips served on planes] got incredible coverage."

In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, other firsts started to play a bigger part in JetBlue's marketing. Mr. Neeleman's instant insistence that Kevlar cabin doors be fitted in all JetBlue planes, while many in the industry were still wrangling over the best way to proceed, was the subject of numerous broadcasts and articles, and positioned the upstart as a leader in air safety. Several of the reports also mentioned JetBlue's new cabin surveillance cameras. Not only did JetBlue seem safe and responsible, but it also appeared to investors as nimble and able to react quickly to market changes.

In fact, the events of Sept. 11, which might have done irrevocable damage to a start-up airline, are perceived by JetBlue's marketers to have been a seminal point in establishing the airline.

Clearly, judging by the sales figures, they were already getting a message to the marketplace, but they didn't feel they had yet managed to find the right tone to tell the brand's full story. Ms. Curtis-McIntyre thinks 9/11 forced them to find that voice.

Just weeks before the terrorists struck, she had ditched Havas' Arnold McGrath, New York, for the Ad Store, an independent New York agency. She describes Arnold's JetBlue work as "respectable." It focused mostly on JetBlue's prices and destinations, and was achieving decent results, but Ms. Curtis-McIntyre felt it lacked something.

Fashionable retro bags
The Ad Store, which already numbered Italian carrier Alitalia Airlines among its clients, had cold-called JetBlue and impressed Ms. Curtis-McIntyre with non-traditional ideas such as a retro JetBlue flight bag for the young New York fashion-followers among whom such items were de rigueur. (The bags are now seen doing the rounds downtown.)

"We were so excited to start work on some big executions, and then Sept. 11 happened," says Ad Store CEO Paul Cappelli. "We thought that was it. But when we sat down, we realized we had the right story for the time. We decided to get straight back out there."

"We're not selling air transport," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre. "We're selling travel and service and humanity. So we went back to basics, with spots that focused on those aspects. Sept. 11 forced us to really discover our brand identity."

The commercials, which run locally to avoid waste in areas not served by JetBlue, were certainly human but also ironic. One 60-second spot targeted at New York travelers depicted what a subway car might be like if it were a JetBlue airplane. JetBlue crew members dance through the car putting pillows under passengers' heads, blankets over sleeping bodies, coffee in the cup that a beggar is using to collect change and so on. All the while they dance with passengers and sing along to the perky strains of Jackie DeShannon's pop classic "Put a Little Love in Your Heart."

It should be chronically cheesy, but it's sufficiently ironic that the spot gets the point across while retaining its New York cred. And despite the fact that all the actors are actually JetBlue staffers, this looks like expensive, big agency work.

"We have never overclaimed in our ads, nor will we," says Ms. Curtis-McIntyre. "We don't say, 'We have the best flight attendants in the business,' even though we think we do. But what we feel we now get across is a real sense of who we are-human and humorous."

'The JetBlue voice'
Despite her obvious pleasure at "finding the JetBlue voice," Ms. Curtis-McIntyre doesn't seem like a marketer about to get carried away on a creative ego trip. She says she may spend a little more on ads next year to support the airline's entry into new destinations, but the marketing department's focus will be on maintaining the customer experience and using innovations as a bedrock for PR.

She cuts off the question about whether JetBlue can sustain its performance -- "Could just one person avoid writing the 'Next Southwest or next People's Express?' headline? Please" -- by pointing out that JetBlue's strengths haven't gone away. That's fair. In fact, in the last six months JetBlue has started a frequent flier program and purchased Live TV, the in-flight broadcasting company, as well as added nice touches such as in-flight yoga. She notes that no one at JetBlue is saying they could, or want to, run Delta or United.

The question is rephrased to draw the comparison to Starbucks and the increasing sense that it has lost the unique customer experience on which it thrived. Ms. Curtis-McIntyre relents. "Sure ... can we protect a brand built on being personal and human as we grow? If you look at Southwest, [it] still has that personal feeling. If you look at the 100 best companies to work for, SAS is always in there. If you continue to spend time and money on the people who work here, and to tell them the truth, you can do it."

Attracting more customers? "We'll have new planes, new routes, new innovations," she says. "We've developed marketing platforms ... not just PR and advertising but the Web too." has certainly become a powerful platform for the airline. A lot of JetBlue's advertising has directed customers to the Web site and it has worked, although the fact there are no JetBlue fares on Travelocity or Orbitz may also boost reservations made on JetBlue's site. More than 68% of JetBlue's customers now book through its Web site, compared with 45% for Southwest and around 15% for most of the major carriers. And that gives the marketing team a powerful and cost-effective tool for researching its customers and promoting offers.

Does that mean the airline can disband its reservation agent crew who work from home -- described by Mr. Neeleman in one speech as "the best quality people in the business, sitting in their fluffy pink slippers"? Absolutely not, says Mr. Claydon. "Our promise might be simple -- you'll get the lowest fare on JetBlue -- but our customers love the fact that they can call someone who will advise and help them. We will always be about our people."

Mr. Edmonson-Jones echoes the sentiment: "Whatever you've seen us do externally, we've tried to do internally. It is crucial that we have the same voice internally. We try to run our intranet like a daily paper and keep everyone informed of anything we do absolutely as soon as we do it. The first time I overhear someone saying, 'I'm always the last to know,' will be the day this dream pops."

Sounds like "inside-out" or "360-degree" marketing rhetoric. But as our wander around Terminal 6 is interrupted for conversations with cleaners, security staff and other JetBlue team members, all as friendly as the check-in agent with his tales of Disney World, it's easy to see why so many customers are raving about the airline. It seems a little humanity can go a long way.

~ ~ ~
Jonah Bloom is the executive editor of Advertising Age.

Most Popular
In this article: