CMO Q&A: Porter Gale, Virgin America

Porter Gale of Virgin America speaks to Alexandra Bruell about the airline's marketing mix and why it is happy about Promoted Tweets

Virgin America's Porter Gale speaks to Alexandra Bruell about the airline's marketing mix and controversy surrounding its CW reality show Fly Girls

Many airlines have had to account for raising fuel prices and other economic hardships with extra fees. How have you responded to this from a marketing standpoint?    

Virgin America is positioned to compete when fuel prices go up and down because we're a value-oriented airline. A couple of things have been really successful for us. One of the first things is to show a combination of the value and experience. We've leveraged great strategic partnerships to amplify our reach and extend our dollars because our budgets are very small. So we've worked with partners like Google, HBO, Twitter, and we've also used social media in a very cost-effective way.

How are you responding to other challenges posed by the down economy?

We've been more focused on the leisure traveler, but that's starting to shift now that we're adding new markets and greater frequency. With the airline industry, your route network and frequent senior loyalty program are really some of the things that can help bring in the business traveler.

The other thing we obviously marketed and did to our product which has been a very successful way to hook the business traveler was make an investment in Wi-Fi. That was a product shift but it was also something we were really able to leverage in both marketing and PR communications. We teamed up with YouTube. [The PR folks] have done amazing interviews where they've Skyped from the sky. They also did a fun Skype session with Oprah when we launched Wi-Fi.   

How has the marketing budget changed?

Budgets haven't diminished; we've been growing. We certainly had to combat the recession so at that point we did push more value-oriented messaging. We did have more fare sales, but right now we're just trying to use every dollar very effectively. We've placed more emphasis on social media, and a lot of it has been with internal staffing and not necessarily spend in terms of agencies. 

Has that placed a greater emphasis or investment in PR and earned media?

Ever since [the 2007] launch, we recognize that when there's great buzz from PR, sales tend to go up. We actually can see trends in ROI.

Tell me about some of the non-traditional marketing programs, such as your partnerships and the Fly Girls reality show on The CW.    

We've been very fortunate to have partners like the CW and individual companies like Twitter and Google, and we try to keep the relationships going. We did programs where we've given out free Wi-Fi that Google paid for during the holidays.  

Also, we were fortunate to be one of the companies selected to do Promoted Tweets. We don't want social media to feel like advertising. We want it to feel like a conversation.

That's been some criticism surrounding Promoted Tweets' authenticity

If anything, we have people wanting to find the promoted tweets more often. For example, with a recent launch in Toronto, we did a “Name our Canadian Bird” contest. People sent in hundreds of names for the planes. It was the first city where we announced the launch via Twitter rather than traditional advertising, and that got a lot of buzz. We offered special fares.

How did you respond to criticism around Fly Girls?

Fly Girls was a little controversial, but at the end of the day we do feel it was a successful program. We wanted to achieve national exposure for the brand, and we wanted the conversation to bleed into the mainstream media. If you look at the show, the product exposure is brilliant. We knew the show was gong to appeal to some and not others.

How much of what you do is traditional advertising?

In our traditional mix, over half of our budget is spent in online advertising. One of the reasons is because our website is a great place for people to buy tickets. We're probably 60% traditional, but the shift is always evolving. We've used events and promotions very aggressively, especially attached to our market launches.

What's to come?

Next year we'll be looking at ways to bring more and more business travelers into our airline now that we're growing and adding cities. You'll see some of that reflected in our communications and offerings.

From a marketing standpoint, how have you responded to the troubling airline industry issues, such as fare hikes and rising costs?

Virgin America is positioned to compete when fuel prices go up and down because we're a value-oriented airline. We've leveraged strategic partnerships to amplify our reach and extend our dollars because our budgets are very small. So we've worked with partners such as Google, HBO, Twitter, and we've also used social media in a very cost-effective way.

How do you respond to other challenges?

We've been focused on the leisure traveler, but that's shifting now we're adding new markets and greater frequency. With the airline industry, your route network and frequent senior loyalty program are things that can bring in the business traveler.

We also invested in Wi-Fi. That was a product shift, but something we were able to leverage in both marketing and PR. The PR folks have done amazing interviews where they've Skyped from the sky. They also did a fun Skype session with Oprah when we launched Wi-Fi.

How has the marketing budget changed?

Budgets haven't diminished; we've been growing. We're just trying to use every dollar effectively. We've placed more emphasis on social media. A lot of it has been done with internal staffing, not necessarily spend in terms of agencies.

Has that placed a greater emphasis or investment in PR and earned media?

Since the 2007 launch, we've recognized that when there's great buzz from PR, sales tend to go up. We actually can see trends in ROI.

What about Virgin's non-traditional marketing?

We were fortunate to be one of the companies selected to do Promoted Tweets. We don't want social media to feel like advertising. We want it to feel like a conversation.

In Toronto, for example, we did a "Name our Canadian Bird" contest. People sent in hundreds of names for the planes. It was the first city where we announced the launch via Twitter rather than traditional advertising, and that got a lot of buzz.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.