CMO Insights: Keeping It Personal

an interview with
Marty St. George Senior Vice President of Marketing and Commercial Strategy, JetBlue

Think of customer service in today’s airline industry, and “human” may not be the first phrase that comes to mind. JetBlue, on the other hand, has been putting faces to names for quite some time. Marty St. George, SVP of Marketing and Commercial Strategy, caught up with me during this year’s CMO Club Awards and clued me in to the strategy behind JetBlue’s marketing operations. For starters, the airline keeps it personal by shunning a corporate persona and getting the whole crew involved—literally—by treating the planes’ staff as an extension of the marketing team. After all, the flight is the most important customer touch point of all.  Not surprisingly, Marty is a very bright guy and has a lot of good advice for anyone who is smart enough to ask for it.  So I asked and you’re the beneficiary assuming you read on…

Drew: CEO David Barger famously posed the question ‘How do we stay small as we get big?’ to the JetBlue team. As CMO, how do you take on this challenge?

Marty: Every leader at JetBlue takes full ownership of that challenge. There are elements of the JetBlue experience that naturally lend themselves to helping us stay small.  We don’t ask our people to do anything that we wouldn’t do.  (For example, when we are flying on a trip and we arrive at the gate, we ALL clean it, not just the flight attendants….on the holidays, many of us work at the airport helping customers during the busiest days.)  But specifically as CMO, I am focused on making sure that our mission and values come through in every communication we do, both internal and external. When we start looking like a faceless conglomerate to our people, we will have lost the battle.

Drew: JetBlue operates within a notoriously difficult industry. Much of your success has come from effectively connecting with your customers. What steps do you take to better understand and communicate with your customers?

Marty: I am very lucky, in that our founders gave us a mission and a set of values that are core to our DNA. Our mission is to inspire humanity, and part of what we try to accomplish is that personal connection between the brand and our customers. Our customers feel personal ownership of the brand, and they are very vocal about the things they love, and the things they want us to change.  

Drew: Innovation is a sexy word but not as sexy to a CEO as ROI.  Have you been able to link your innovative marketing activities to the kinds of business metrics favored by CEOs?

Marty:   Luckily we have a CEO who recognizes that innovation is part of the brand personality of JetBlue.  We report brand metrics to our board, just like we report financial metrics and the board expects us to push the envelope.

Drew: What is the biggest marketing risk you’ve taken at JetBlue? How did it play out?

Marty:  There have been a lot of them, but I think the biggest risk was the “Election Protection” promo we ran in New York during Fall 2012. The simple idea: if you’re one of those folks who says, if my candidate loses I’m moving to XX? We will give away 2,012 free tickets out of the country. It was risky because election promos are inherently risky; voting is a sacred duty, and there are many examples of brands commercializing the election to their detriment. Luckily, we played it perfectly and got more buzz than we ever imagined, and zero blowback. ( )

Drew: How do you evaluate/measure the success of your marketing?  Are there some channels that work a lot better for you than others?

Marty:  Two key methods; first, on a macro level we look at brand metrics for us and our competitors. On a micro level, we measure every dollar we spend digitally and translate it into a cost-per-booking.  We share our metrics with our media partners and expect them to help improve campaigns and targets to get our CPB lower.

Drew: Has marketing become more complex for you and if so, how are you dealing with that complexity?

Marty:  We deal with it by keeping up with technology, and by finding partners in that space who can help keep us current. In fact, every year we have a “digital day”, where we invite current and potential marketing partners in to pitch our entire team. We’ve found several exciting new technologies and channels that way, just through an open “casting call”.

Drew: Content marketing is hot topic at the moment.  What’s your perspective on content in terms of its effectiveness?  Are you increasing your investment in this area?

Marty:  I think “content” is a concept that’s going to become obsolete very soon – rather than focusing on content as a means, we focus on engagement as the end. Content is one of many ways to create engagement, but certainly not the only way.  We have done some innovative programs (like Getaway with it – ) but we do it with the goal of engagement.

Drew: What have been your top priorities in the last 12 months?

Marty:  My top 3 priorities are talent, talent and talent. We are always looking for brand evangelists. It’s easy to find people who can do the work, but it’s much tougher to find people who treat the brand like it’s their baby.  

Drew: Have there been any big surprises in terms of what’s worked really well and what hasn’t?

Marty:  We did a promotion called “Carmageddon” – when the 405 Freeway was closed in LA, we flew for a day back and forth between Burbank and Long Beach. When the team brought the idea to me, I said “I can’t imagine this getting buzz but feel free to do it, if you can do it cheaply.”  For about $10,000 in spend, we generated almost $10mm in impressions.  We had captured the moment in a fun, creative way.

Drew: Do you agree with the notion that marketing is everything and everything is marketing and if so, how have you extended the boundaries of your job beyond the normal purview of the CMO?  

Marty:  Absolutely agree; and luckily at JetBlue we all recognize that the experience is the ultimate manifestation of the brand, and our people learn this on day 1.  How?  Every month we hold an orientation for new Crewmembers at our training center, and many senior leaders attend.  When I speak at Orientation, my first line is to welcome everyone to the Marketing team – since everyone who touches a customer owns a piece of the brand.


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