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Just completed this case study of one of my favorite brands, Virgin America. Thanks to my friends there for helping out on this case study for Chapter 2 on Positioning and the Brand. – T.M.
Virgin America is a California-based airline that has a declared mission to make flying good again. Launched in 2007, the airline’s goal was to disrupt the airline industry. Though hyper-competitive, the airline industry had become sclerotic. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, in 2011, the American airline industry had lower customer satisfaction than the IRS and U.S. Postal Service.[i] This presented an opportunity for an airline that would emphasize customer service and the flying experience.
Flying Virgin America is like flying no other airline. From the moment you check in, you notice the difference – rock music plays at the self-service check in kiosks. The planes have pink mood lighting (a seemingly small but important part of the Virgin America brand identity that was important enough to take the time for regulatory approval). The safety video is clever and funny. The safety video has over 500,000 views on YouTube. Think about that – no one pays attention to safety videos on the plane, but someone put Virgin America’s on You Tube and it has been viewed by half a million people! (Creating buzz-worthy content is discussed in Chapter 7.)
According to Virgin America VP of Marketing & Communications Luanne Calvert, the goal was to disrupt the industry and differentiate the airline from all others. Brand was key to this. Virgin America extending its branding to every bit of the customer experience, including elements like music, mood lighting and humor. To achieve its mission of making flying fun again, Virgin America sought to let people take their on the ground experience up in the air with them. Why couldn’t air travel be relaxing, comfortable and fun? Music, lighting, leather seats and humor were important elements.
Virgin America had another, unique challenge. The airline inherited some brand elements from its parent company, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group (technically, due to U.S. government restrictions prohibiting foreign control of U.S. airlines, Virgin Group is a minority owner). Branson himself has cultivated a sexy, adventurous brand with a bit of cheek that works well for many of its businesses. But Virgin America had some unique requirements.
According to Calvert, the airline ran the risk of seeming exclusionary or aloof if it did not add friendliness to the brand’s personality. Stressed out or fearful flyers also respond well to friendly staff. Obviously, based on ACSI’s findings, friendliness was wane in the airline industry.
The company also cultivated two additional brand personality elements – clever and provocative. The safety video and mood lighting serve as examples of Virgin America’s cleverness. Its ads seek to provoke change in the industry, asking questions like Why can’t airline food be as good as food you can get in the airport or at a local restaurant. This provocateur stance suits the upstart airline.
The brand torch is carried throughout the entire organization. Every employee understands the importance of the brand, from the airport staff to the flight crew to the executive team. Calvert’s Brand Management team oversees the brand and helps maintain its key elements of friendly, clever and provocative.
The team and Virgin America’s agency also creates unique digital and live elements to let potential customers experience Virgin America. Because so much of the Virgin America brand is the airport experience, Calvert’s team has been working on ways to bring that experience to prospective customers outside the airport. These efforts include an interactive online video called VX Experience that is half party, half airplane, and the Virgin America Club Level at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. I experienced this personally when I sat in the Virgin America club seats at AT&T Park with my son. Virgin America didn’t just put their logo on the walls, they turned the escalator into a mood-lit jetway and installed a bar with a fun party atmosphere.
The results have been impressive. Since launching in August 2007, Virgin America has captured a host of travel industry best-in-class awards, including: “Best Domestic Airline” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for four consecutive years, “Best Business/First Class” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Business Travel Poll for four consecutive years, “Best Domestic Airline” in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for five consecutive years, and #1 in Class in Zagat’s Global Airlines Survey in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Calvert says the company also measures Net Promoter Score (also covered in Chapter 7) among its Elevate frequent flier program members. Virgin America is #1 by a long shot over their closest competitors JetBlue and Southwest
 United, the largest airline in the U.S., perhaps had a part to play in opening up an opportunity for Virgin America. It dropped its “Friendly Skies” campaign in 1997, after thirty years.
[i] ACSI Press Release, June 2011 http://www.theacsi.org/media-resources/acsi-commentary-june-2011