It’s too soon to make light of the Bruins loss, that much is clear. I’m on the phone with Marty St. George, SVP of Commercial for JetBlue. Marty is a diehard Bruins fan, having grown up near where I now live, on the South Shore of Boston, Mass., and he’s not happy about their elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But regardless, Marty was gracious enough to give me some time to sit down to chat about the airline business, marketing and how a company’s mission ties to its brand. Here’s our chat.
CP: Tell me about JetBlue’s mission
MSG: Our mission used to be “Bringing humanity back to travel,” but recently, it’s morphed into simply, “Inspire Humanity.” And that’s what we strive to do every day. Our mission and values are an integral part of what we do at JetBlue – there are so many pieces of the process that we don’t control in the airline industry, but our customers don’t differentiate between what’s us, TSA, air traffic control, etc. – so our goal is to get crew members in this mindset – to own any issues, fix them even if they’re not our fault, and be emphatic and humane. Ultimately, to solve the problem to the best of our ability.
We’re so committed to this mission, that anyone who is hired – including our business partners (our terminology for vendors) – goes through two days of culture training solely focused on ensuring that everyone is clear on expectations for a successful crewmember. We don’t cover duties, but just focus on the mission of the company – how you fit in, how you’ll be evaluated – all in a very inspirational manner. Our CEO is personally in attendance at 90% of these trainings, as are many of our senior leaders, myself included (I teach a module about brand. A lot of people know the word but they don’t understand what it means.) We’re in a service business so how you react in any situation affects the brand. Even with internal communications, you can’t be rude – it’s simply not good service.
CP: How does this mission tie into one of your most recent ad campaigns – “Air on the Side of Humanity”?
MSG: The “Air on the Side of Humanity” pigeons are really a metaphor that made sense to travelers. For many airlines, you may be an “elite customer” on paper but you don’t get any tangible benefits for that loyalty – no upgrades, etc. – so there is a big part of the traveling market that is underserved. Your fare gets you a cramped seat, but everything else you pay for: seat assignment, ability to bring a bag, to eat food, etc. Yes, you can find cheap flights – and for some, that’s the goal – but there’s a whole other segment that thinks it’s terrible – that the “cheap” airfare isn’t worth it, especially after you’ve paid for all the other “amenities.” The goal of this campaign was to get travelers to recognize this and to create a metaphor that made sense to them, and enlighten them that there’s another way. We had to break through the fact that customers have been made so numb to the airline industry’s downfalls – and view all airlines the same way – that they aren’t open to differences unless they’ve flown us.
And, like all of our campaigns, it had to be something that other airlines would never do. Our ads are distinct – they don’t get mistaken for others.
CP: What are three reasons you believe JetBlue has been able to build a highly respected brand in such a competitive industry?
MSG: There’s only one reason: we recognize it’s a service business. We’re in a service business. It’s not the product (airplane), it’s the service (airline). The industry has become commoditized and we’re building a better mousetrap and securing more business because of that. And of course, we use our mission and values as the North Star around service. That’s key.
CP: You’ve been known to talk about using a lot of data in your marketing strategies. What’s your #1 tip for merging the data side of marketing with the creative side?
MSG: Let me start by saying one thing: the CMO/CIO relationship is the most crucial one today and nobody is going to crack the data code without a strong relationship with their CIO.
Assuming you have worked with your CIO to build the right infrastructure, I always come back to one question – what is the problem that we are we trying to solve? The challenge on the data front is that you can go down a rabbit hole by chasing cool, interesting data– but you have to differentiate between insightful ways to solve a problem and a realistic search for the solution of a problem. We’re a small airline, but with 32 million customers a year and 10 million frequent fliers, we have plenty of data – so it’s crucial for us to focus on data that addresses the problems we have and not just the cool, fun sexy data.
CP: Thoughts on social media?
MSG: Brands don’t get to decide what “doing it wrong” means – the customers get to decide it.
A funny side note, in 2007 we were one of the first corporations on Twitter and a guy wrote this fantastic blog post saying “JetBlue is following me on Twitter” – and how ridiculous and wrong he felt it was. At that time, we had to defend ourselves and say, “We’re just trying to help.” Compare that to where we are today – if a brand like ours doesn’t answer someone on social in five minutes, it’s a travesty.
We have a reputation of being one of the top brands in social, and I think that only happened because we had that groundwork of a strong relationship with our customers. When social came around and we had a channel that enabled that one-to-one communication between customers and brands, we were lucky enough to have already built the kind of brand that people WANTED to connect with!
CP: What do you find to be your biggest daily challenge as a marketer?
MSG: Trying to keep a good balance between strategic and tactical. People get really excited about the big brand statements, sexy advertising, etc. but at the same time, I need to measure my ability to fill 100,000 seats a day. Both strategy and tactics are important, but depending on the revenue at any given time, strategy could be off the table and we’re just focusing on tactics, or vice versa. As a CMO, you’re a coach, and it’s your job to ensure that the team has a good balance between strategic vision and practical, tactical execution.
CP: So what’s the biggest goal of your marketing?
MSG: To drive revenue and bookings, period.
CP: What kind of smart phone do you use? What are your “must have” apps?
MSG: iPhone, but I still use an old Microsoft Zune for music. My favorite apps: 1) Twitter (I’m addicted); 2) Google maps (not only does it have good traffic data, it has great transit functionality, which is key in New York) 3) I love Yahoo’s Weather app (in this business weather is important). Oh, and I was glued to the Bruins app until last Wednesday but we’re not talking about that.
CP: What are your “must read” outlets each day?
MSG: I have a long commute (1:45 each way), so I read a lot and I have a routine on the train: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe. I also like Yahoo’s news aggregator – the industry module is good for airline news, and I enjoy AdAge and Digiday. I also get a great deal of information from links on Twitter and Facebook.
CP: How often do you travel and where are your favorite locations?
MSG: On average, one trip a week – sometimes less, sometimes more. I love London, Hong Kong and Dublin. I’m always biased towards Boston, it’s home, and I love Austin, it’s a great city. I most recently discovered Charleston because we just started flying there.
CP: What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a college graduate entering the marketing industry today?
MSG: I’ve got two kids in high school and they roll their eyes when I talk in clichés, but please indulge me: “Find a job you love, and you never work a day in your life.” It’s so true. You can get the most exciting, sexy, lucrative job but if you don’t wake up every morning excited about it, you won’t be good at it.
After eight years at JetBlue, Marty is still excited to get up every day and go to work.