Some airline passengers get really hooked on the game of getting status and upgrades. “That game,” says chief marketer Marty St. George, “is pretty foreign to JetBlue.”
Yes, JetBlue has a loyalty program. Its operative ethos, however, has always been less about locking in passengers with points and more about treating them to a better in-flight experience.
The airline’s arrival in February, 1999, was at once audacious and pragmatic. Its ambitious mission to “bring humanity back to air travel” was backed by a relatively humble mix of low fares, unusually attentive customer service, and unexpected amenities.
“There are two kinds of loyalty: the kind you buy, and the kind you earn,” says Marty. “For JetBlue, the mix decidedly favors the latter.”
The result is a kind of loyalty that’s premised on treating all passengers as relationships, regardless of their frequent-flier status. It’s a loyalty that has endured disasters, like the snowstorm that infamously stranded passengers aboard a JetBlue plane for 11 hours, as well as the occasional rogue flight attendant, or psychotic pilot.
Such incidents seem only to intensify JetBlue’s aura of humanity.
Granted, the surprise-and-delight that JetBlue introduced nearly 14 years ago does not pack as much punch today. The digitized ability for anyone to bitch and moan to the world about anything and everything that goes awry presents a whole new set of challenges, too.
JetBlue’s relationship with its passengers, admits Marty, remains a work in progress.The day we say we’ve accomplished our mission is the day we fail,” he says.
Why aren’t more passengers loyal to JetBlue?
It’s very interesting to us how many customers will say: “I absolutely love you. Any time I fly for leisure, I fly JetBlue. And when I fly for business I fly Airline X, Airline Y, or Airline Z.”
If you saw George Clooney in Up in the Air, where his character is flying 200,000 miles a year — those types of customers are treated extremely well. A customer like that would never leave American or Delta to fly with JetBlue because that’s not the type of service we offer.
The customers that we’re most excited about are those who are at that first level of elite program, who travel 20,000 or 25,000 miles a year. What we hear from them is that they’re upset because they feel like they’ve been “gamed.”
They’ve given the airline all of their air travel, but they can’t get through the elite security line. They never get upgraded. They may sometimes be able to board first, but they’re not really sure what they’re getting in return for their loyalty.
Those are the customers who are in the sweet spot for JetBlue and have been the driver of our share. They are starting to recognize that they may never realize the dream of someday having a great, luxury experience on Delta or American, but they can be guaranteed a great economy experience on JetBlue. There are a lot more of those people than there are million-miler George Clooney types.
Is it harder to create loyalty today than in the past?
The pat answer is always “yes” because the business gets more and more complex. But I don’t feel that way at JetBlue because I don’t think anyone has come close to us from a product perspective yet.
At the same time, some of the things that made JetBlue unique 10 years ago aren’t so unique anymore. Other airlines have TV on board, and have been trying put more of a focus on customer service.
To a certain extent, that’s good for us because it keeps us on our toes. We don’t want our crewmembers to lay back and say: “All right, we’ve got this covered.” We want everyone to think we are going to lose our place at the top of the JD Power “customer satisfaction” rankings for seven years running because that’s going to keep them on their toes.
You can create an image for a brand, but if you can’t deliver on that brand image, and hopefully even exceed it, you can’t be successful. That’s really what’s changed. Your ability as a marketer to control your brand image is significantly less than it was 10 years ago because you’re not the only one who owns the brand image; your customers own it, too. That’s the big difference.
How important is “Big Data” to building loyalty at JetBlue?
Frankly, right now, it’s not very important at all. We have a rudimentary Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. It is no way near as robust as we would like it to be, and we are spending time and money to try to improve it. But, honestly, what is most important about building loyalty is every interpersonal interaction we have with our customers.
It’s making sure that every gate agent and flight attendant — every crewmember — recognizes that customers are always judging. They are always putting their experiences through the filter. Was that a good experience? Was that a bad experience? The quicker that everyone recognizes that, the better our shot at continuing to be a leader in customer service.
We are building the next generation of CRM right now. I do think we have a great opportunity to use CRM to improve our share of wallet, but I don’t want it to be a crutch that we use instead of delivering a great experience every day.
Doesn’t the data help you improve the experience?
It does, and we use customer feedback constantly. First and foremost, we get instantaneous feedback through social media. In addition, we send out a significant number of customer surveys after every flight. So, we have data on every single flight — all 700 a day, 365 days a year.
We also have created a culture where our frontline crew is very much empowered to give feedback directly to senior management on anything we are doing that’s keeping us from delivering great services.
One thing I love about JetBlue is that you’ll see pilots and flight attendants wandering the halls of our support centers between trips. We don’t have a headquarters; we have a support center. We use terms like that because we want to make it clear that our job is to provide support. It’s a very open culture and transparent organizational structure.
Is the traditional marketing model dead?
What I would say is the traditional model is going through a significant transition. The biggest reason the model is changing so much is the democratization of data.
If I bought a commercial on the last episode of M*A*S*H, I would have gotten a 75 share. Everyone would have gotten that message. If I bought a commercial for the new Plymouth Duster on that show, people would look at the commercial and say, ”Look at that car racing through the hills, it looks really cool, I’ll go and buy it.”
By the time you realize that the car may not be the greatest car in the world, it’s a year later and it’s too late. You already have the car. Today, if I want to buy a car, I’m on Facebook saying, “Hey, I’m looking at the new Audi. What do you think?”
And my friends will immediately tell me: “I love that car. I hate that car. Here’s what I loved about it. Here’s the model I bought. Here’s what I paid.” There’s such an incredible democratization of data right now that, as a marketer, there’s nowhere to hide.
Death is a pretty strong word, but marketing is twisted into a different shape, absolutely.
How does that affect JetBlue’s marketing organization?
Organizationally, it’s a really tough question. We have a relatively small team. We’re a 4-plus billion-dollar company. It’s not that big a company, so our organizational structure is a little loosey-goosey.
We don’t really focus on whom we report to. This is a team sport and we spend a lot of time working together. What that does is make us realize how important it is to be hyper-focused on making promises we can exceed, if not at least fulfill.
There’s a lot more responsibility on the marketer today. It hasn’t changed what JetBlue stands for because we’ve been a very open company from day one. But we recognize that transparency is always going to be incredibly important.
Has it changed the way you work with your agencies?
No, it hasn’t changed that at all. We like to have agency relationships that are so close you can’t tell who’s working for the agency and who’s working for the brand.
Let me tell you about the crewmember experience at JetBlue. First of all, a “crewmember” is everybody who works here; it’s our internal term for employee. Even the CEO is a crewmember. Every crewmember starts his or her JetBlue experience with a two-day orientation at our training center in Orlando. The most important thing they learn is about the brand, the product, and their role. They learn about the values. It’s basically a culture factory.
Our CEO attends 9 out of 10 orientations. There are always multiple members of our senior leadership there. Our agencies go through orientation, too. So, when Mullen came on as our agency-of-record two years ago, everybody on our account went down to Orlando for orientation. As new people join the agency account team, they also go to orientation.
It is so important that they start off their JetBlue experience just like every other crewmember, and that they fully understand what makes the brand tick. We try to build very, very deep relationships.
You are a devoted tweeter. What got you hooked?
For a marketer, Twitter is like crack. I got hooked on it because I wanted to see what people were saying about JetBlue. I was in heaven. I was just excited about what I’d learned.
I learned things that, historically, I would have paid an awful lot of money to research companies to learn — and I wouldn’t have learned anything until two or three months later. With Twitter, I can actually get instantaneous feedback on how well we’re doing as a company.
What’s the most fun you’ve had with social media?
A citizen of Worcester, Massachusetts, recently created a contest to make a video that would convince JetBlue to fly to the airport there. So, we made our own video and entered it in the contest.
The thing about Worcester is that people don’t know how to pronounce it unless they’re from there (it’s pronounced Woo-ster). So, we walked around our support center in New York, held up a sign with the word “Worcester” written on it, and asked people to try to pronounce it.
The goal was to let Worcester know we were listening, but even more important was to humanize the brand. Technically, what JetBlue does is fly big pieces of metal through the sky. Humanity is not the first thing that comes to mind. So, we want to find ways to force humanity as a core brand value.
It was a great way to create brand engagement. It was a blast doing it. I also enjoyed watching the other videos people submitted. Personally, I think we should have won but … I know why we didn’t. That wouldn’t have been fair.
Has JetBlue brought humanity back into air travel?
That’s never accomplished. Every single day you have to recognize that there’s the possibility of not fulfilling that promise. Every single customer interaction is an opportunity either to live up to that promise or to fall short of it.
Has technology had a dehumanizing effect on air travel?
We talk about that constantly. It’s very important for us to create that balance between humanity and technology. The mantra that we use internally is going to sound trite, but we call it “technology-aided humanity.”
We don’t want to use technology to take humans out of the process; we want to use technology to help humans experience the process better. There are definitely competitors out there who are using technology as a crutch and are taking humans out of the equation. We absolutely, positively never want to do that.
How would you describe the experience you provide?
I would describe our experience as simple. The simpler it is, the easier it is to deliver. And we do try to make things very, very simple. If you go through the boarding process on one of the legacy airlines, by the time you get to group nine, there are only two of you left in the boarding area.
We’ve added some level of complexity as we become more and more business-oriented, but we don’t ever want to get to the point where we have that legacy airline look.
What is the relationship between social responsibility and loyalty?
Social responsibility is important to the brand overall. Our goal is to deliver a great product and create a positive return for our shareholders. We also want to be good citizens.
One of our cornerstone partners is KaBoom, which builds playgrounds in inner cities because an incredible percentage of kids in inner cities have no access to a playground.
We’ve built 15 playgrounds, most recently in Oakland, which is not a focus city for us. We picked Oakland by asking our Facebook fans where they’d like to see us build our next playground. Democracy ruled, and we built it in Oakland. Then we put a call out to our frequent fliers in the Bay Area, asking for volunteers to help build the playground, and 150 customers volunteered.
What do playgrounds have to do with the airline business?
It’s not only about getting credit; doing the right thing is important. You know the old saying: Character is what you do when no one’s looking. We should be responsible citizens even if there is no feedback about it, because that’s part of our responsibility to the community.
What’s the most innovative thing today at JetBlue?
One of the most interesting things that we’re doing right now is our plan for on-board wi-fi. It’s a great example of how the industry has moved to a commodity position and we have gone in a completely different direction.
Most other airlines use the same ground-based system for on-board internet. What we found is that once you get more than 10 or 15 people on an airplane using it, it slows down to a crawl. We could have put that on our airplanes two years ago, but we knew it wasn’t going to work, so why would we ever do that?
So, we found a satellite communications company, ViaSat, which we engaged along with LiveTV, a wholly-owned JetBlue subsidiary that provides live feeds on our airplanes. We can now get broadband speeds with our own on-board internet system. The first plane is going in for modification and testing in early 2013.
We try to keep finding ways to innovate that don’t increase our costs and don’t force us to increase our fares. We want to be innovative, but keep it simple.
What’s the most frustrating thing at JetBlue?
What frustrates me the most is that there are big chunks of the customer experience that I have almost no control over. Our customers are not going to parse out blame between air traffic control or TSA or the ability to get on the Van Wyck expressway in less than 20 minutes. They just view all of that as part of the traveling experience. I don’t control any of that. I am trying to provide a great product, and I don’t have as much control as I’d like.
What keeps me up at night is the ability to continue to deliver great service as we get bigger and bigger. When I started at JetBlue, we had about 8,000 crewmembers, and we now have 14,500 crewmembers. Scaling the culture and the expectations of 14,500 crewmembers, and delivering great experiences, is challenging.
It’s just getting tougher and tougher to find great crewmembers as the company gets bigger and bigger. We have been very lucky. We hire about 1,500 people a year. We get 100,000 resumes, so we’re still at a point where we can be pretty picky as far as whom we hire, but we can’t take that for granted forever.
How do you see airline travel changing over the next decade?
Fundamentally, the only thing I can focus on is where JetBlue is going to go. I have no idea what our competitors are going to do. We always want to be conscious of the fact that there are always new airlines starting up. We have to continue to innovate and make sure that we’re not leaving any white space open and letting anyone else do to us what we did to other airlines 14 years ago. ■