Virgin America enlists Ogilvy as AOR, plans publicity events

SAN FRANCISCO: Virgin America has named Ogilvy its AOR, with services to include public affairs, corporate and crisis communications, new-media outreach, and management of special events.

SAN FRANCISCO: Virgin America has named Ogilvy its AOR, with services to include public affairs, corporate and crisis communications, new-media outreach, and management of special events. Ogilvy's DC office will lead the account, with support from the firm's Beverly Hills branch. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Ogilvy's public affairs arm has been working with Virgin for over a year. The agency provided government relations and worked to build grassroots support for the airline's bid to win the Department of Transportation's (DOT) approval to operate. Since Virgin first began flying in August 2007, Ogilvy has also helped to develop and manage events promoting inaugural flights from the six cities initially served by the company.

Events have included a Valentine's Day-themed flight from San Francisco to San Diego, featuring a send-off by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and a welcome reception by the mayor of San Diego and the San Diego Charger Girls. Ogilvy also assisted on an inaugural flight to Las Vegas, during which the ordained Branson married two passengers; and flights from New York to LA, featuring surprise runway shows by Victoria's Secret models.

Abby Lunardini, director of corporate communications, noted that as a startup airline, Virgin America does not have the communications budget that people might assume. Virgin America has no affiliation with the international carrier Virgin Atlantic, though the Virgin Group does hold a minority stake in Virgin America. But the global Virgin brand nevertheless provides ready-made marketing buzz.

"There's a kind of natural PR leverage from the Virgin brand, and Sir [Branson] being available to promote the new routes has really helped," Lunardini said. "We're still kind of a startup, and I've been basically a one-person communications shop. Ogilvy has helped with a lot of these events to leverage the Virgin brand and showcase how the planes are different, including the in-flight entertainment angle."

Virgin's Airbus planes offer seat-to-seat chatting, MP3 players, and PCs at every seat. Tech bloggers' interest in such amenities has aided the airline with its viral marketing, Lunardini said. Even prior to the airline's launch, tech blogs, such as DiggNation, lent support to Virgin's "Let VA Fly" grassroots campaign to win flight approval from regulators.

Upcoming promotional events include the March 18 launch of the airline's Seattle routes, with the LA to Seattle inaugural flight to connect the musical culture of the two cities, likely through a performance by an up-and-coming band, among other things.

Outreach is also planned for two undisclosed routes to begin next year, as well as a highly anticipated new route between LA and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, should the DOT approve it.

Holly Arthur, a VP in Ogilvy's public affairs practice, who directs the Virgin account and handled public affairs outreach for Virgin last year, said that because of regulatory concern that Virgin America was a foreign airline intruding on the US market, Sir Branson stayed away from the US airline last year.

"Now that the paperwork is final, we've been able to creatively use [Branson] to help market the company," Arthur said. "But that comes with some challenges, I will say, because we still have a hard time getting journalists to understand that they're separate companies - that there's Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic. We want to make sure people understand this is something they can buy a ticket [for] today and fly in the US. We don't want people to think this is an international carrier."

Going forward, Virgin and Ogilvy plan to not just create big events to generate publicity, but also to build steady and lasting relationships with a range of media - from travel and tourism publications, to outlets focused on technology or even food, given Virgin's upcoming introduction of a new gourmet menu.

"What we're trying to do is have this heartbeat of traditional consumer PR, because at the end of the day an airline is a product," Arthur explained. "So building those relationships for Abby and her team and getting them engaged with the traditional media on the consumer side is our big focus right now, in addition to these events."

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