Marty St. George, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Commercial at JetBlue, reveals how social media has changed his business, and the speed with which he adapts. In this article, St. George discusses that when the company started, feedback came in the form of letters to customer service. Now he can log on to Facebook or Twitter and find out instantly when there's a problem, whether it's a broken TV or fog on the windows. Social media also adds a personal touch that helps promote the "humanity" that's such a large part of JetBlue's brand.

Written by
Ray Rogers
January 2012

July 2011, LA. A section of Interstate 405, the busiest stretch of highway in one of the world’s busiest cities, is about to be closed as part of a billion-dollar reconstruction project. The work is going to take 10 days and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been on local radio warning that the result will be an “absolute nightmare” for traffic. The press have dubbed it ‘Carmageddon.’ Angelenos prepare for the worst.

But where most buckled up for disaster, one business saw a unique marketing opportunity – if it acted fast. In an inspired move, low-cost airliner JetBlue put on two round-trip flights from Long Beach to Burbank, CA (distance: Roughly 35 miles), passing serenely over the mayhem on the 405 beneath. Billed as a ‘planepool,’ the flights took 45 minutes and seats sold out in under four hours. In a further coup, JetBlue offered 40 percent off a trip to Vegas, inviting commuters to forget the traffic altogether.

“The whole thing from the first idea to the day that we actually did the flights took a week,” reveals Marty St. George. The moral of the story? “When we can move fast and take advantage of something, we’ll do it.”

St. George, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Commercial, is the man tasked with answering a question posed by JetBlue CEO David Barger as the company grew to encompass some 14,000 crewmembers: ‘How do we stay small as we get big?’ Because only by staying small and keeping nimble can JetBlue maintain its identity – and safeguard its soul.

By his own admission, St. George is still figuring out the answer, but he knows that technology – especially social media – has a major part to play. “One of the things that has been a factor in our pursuit and embrace of social media is our customer base,” he notes. “JetBlue has a customer base that skews more affluent, younger, and much more tech-savvy than the traditional airline.”

Staying in constant communication with those customers has been a key marketing strategy ever since St. George came to the brand in 2006, when it was struggling in the midst of a downturn. “As we looked to recover from that, we had a multimedia effort, trying to talk to our customers and make things better.”

In addition to a traditional media assault (including full-page ads in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal), the company made use of emerging social platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, and “a pretty aggressive” YouTube strategy, to get instant feedback about what was or wasn’t working. “We actually love the comments section on YouTube – we love to see what our customers say about us,” St. George says.

What they learned was that “there’s an awful lot of passion about the airline space among customers, and also a lot of passion about JetBlue. So as we started engaging with our customers and listening to them, we recognized that social media represented a completely unexpected opportunity to build our brand image.”

It was a world away from traditional media campaigns. “If you think about what marketing has been like for the last 30 years, it has been 90 percent a one-way endeavor – brands would talk to customers but you didn’t have that direct connection,” explains St. George. “Look at a 30-second or 60-second TV commercial: Sometimes it’s hard to get ideas across. But on our YouTube channel, we can put out a two-minute video and have customers watch it to the very end. If you have engaging content, you’re providing real value.”

On any given workday, St. George can be spotted on Twitter at least half a dozen times, and he’s just as likely to be tweeting about ice hockey as the airline. “I follow other senior marketing leaders who only talk about their company and I’m not as engaged with some of those feeds as I am with people who talk about everything,” he says. St. George also stays connected through Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Indeed, evidence of his enthusiasm for social media comes minutes after our chat finishes. @martysg: ‘Interviewed about speed and social media today: The writer asked me if I tweeted yet and embarrassed to say I had not #EatMyOwnDogFood.’

It’s that sort of real-time response that allows the company to manage customer relations in a way that would have been unheard of just a few years back. “We have a brand that was founded 12 years ago with the mission statement of ‘bringing humanity back to air travel.’ The most important word in that sentence is ‘humanity.’ What we recognized in social media was that we were doing a great job of inadvertently and unexpectedly humanizing our brand on a one-to-one level with customers who really wanted to engage with us.

“It goes from really high-level issues to really micro ones,” he continues – such as learning instantaneously via a customer tweet when the company’s live TV is out on any given flight. “But it’s not just Twitter,” he adds. “It’s things being posted on Facebook. I see pictures on Picasa of a plane with condensation on the window… I’m learning stuff constantly about my brand.”

All this data feeds back into the business in a virtuous cycle, making JetBlue more adaptable, more focused, and, of course, faster. “Social media just makes it so much easier for customers to give us feedback,” explains St. George. “Ten years ago, we had a slip of paper on the desk with the address of customer relations on it. Today, I just check [for feedback] on Facebook or Twitter, and as a brand I can interpret that, act on it, and get the feedback to my frontline people much, much faster.”

That speed matters in a company that has 100,000 résumés on file but only hires around 1,200 people a year. “We want to make sure that the people we bring in recognize that they made it through a very exacting filter, and one of the things they were hired for is their ability to actually deliver the brand and be brand ambassadors,” reveals St. George. “If we can’t get the right people up front, we absolutely will not be able to stay small as we get big.

“Every single member goes through orientation,” he continues. “And our CEO goes to nine out of 10 orientations personally. He does a module and introduces himself to all of the crewmembers. To a certain extent, it’s like he’s passing the mantle on to them. We’re telling them: ‘You guys are the brand.’”

If we can’t get the right people up front, we absolutely will not be able to stay small as we get big.

That doesn’t mean every single crewmember works out, however. For all the advantages of the brand’s social media activity over the past four years, JetBlue experienced the flipside of the phenomenon on August 9, 2010, when flight attendant Steven Slater flipped out after an exchange with a passenger. He grabbed a bottle of beer from the service cart and deplaned via the emergency evacuation slide – after declaring over the PA system, “I’m done!” The event went viral, with Slater becoming a cultural touchstone for overworked and exasperated employees across the country.

JetBlue didn’t take the incident lightly – but the company balanced the desire to respond rapidly with the patience required to gather all the facts. Here, for once, speed took a back seat, reflecting the tension inherent in crisis management: Deal with the problem quickly but effectively.

Internally, recalls St. George, talk within the company focused around the five values integral to the brand: Safety, Caring, Integrity, Fun, and Passion. “All 13,000 crewmembers had the same filter to review the issue. As we learned the details of what happened, the immediate conversation went to the values: He clearly violated the Safety value and the Integrity value and probably violated the Caring value.”

It’s that latter value that matters most to St. George. This, after all, is an industry in which customers count above all else. “If you don’t like customers, you’re in the wrong business,” he concludes, “because the airline business is fundamentally a service business.”

Having neatly summed up the essence of social, St. George has to fly.