How Earned Media Lifts Virgin America

Virgin America only spent $300,000 on measured media for the first 11 months of 2009, per Nielsen, so the airline doesn’t have the ad budget to compete with others in the space. But it seems to be making the most of its meager funds with smart public relations and integration deals. For example, in October, the brand got a fair amount of buzz after Google agreed to offer free Wi-Fi on Virgin’s flights during the holidays. Earlier this month, Virgin also got into the news by transporting a bunch of rescued Chihuahuas from California to New York. In March, the brand will also be featured in the new CW reality show Fly Girls, which profiles five twentysomething flight attendants from the company. Porter Gale, vp, marketing at Virgin discussed how the brand gets the word out, mostly via free media.

Brandweek: How did the Fly Girls thing come about. No money changed hands, right?
Porter Gale:
You’re right. No money changed hands. This is not a paid advertisement at all. The production company had the concept and they pitched us directly. We started a dialogue with them, met with quite a few networks and talked about the concept internally to make sure it was a good and appropriate thing for the brand. We thought this was a great opportunity to show how different we are and how different our service is. Our budgets are quite a bit smaller than our competition, so here was a perfect opportunity to get national exposure as well as broadcast exposure, which we would never be able to afford as a startup airline.

How much control do you have over the content? Is there a chance that some viewers will be turned off?
We are collaborating. I have the title of co-executive producer. We spent a lot of time with the production company, briefing them on how an airline operates, kind of the rules and regulations. We talked a lot about making sure the production wouldn’t impact our customers in a negative way. In terms of the story lines, one thing that’s really important is it’s not about how an airline operates. It’s really focusing on the lives of the five team members who were cast. Is every single person going to love this show? Probably not, but I think we’re going to have a lot of people that will love it. And it will show there can be fun and excitement in the travel category. Because in the past, when people talked about travel it was very negative. It was “I lost my bags,” “I had to wait.” But Virgin gets letters saying things like “I wish my flight was longer.”

That may be the case, but it seems like a lot of people have a negative view of flying and events like the Underwear Bomber and new security screenings don’t help. No matter how great a brand Virgin is, doesn’t it suffer with the rest of the category?
I know exactly what you’re referring to, but I think that in terms of our airline, we try to respect the guests throughout the entire process. We try to be very fair. We have found that when we interview people who have flown with us, our Net Promoter score  is 88 percent. So when you’re reading those stories about negative experiences, you’re not seeing the name Virgin America. What you’re seeing about Virgin America is “Wow, they’re giving us Wi-Fi,” “They’ve brought competition into markets and brought better pricing.”

When most people are looking for flights though, aren’t they going through an aggregator like Expedia and looking for the lowest price?
I think there are pockets of the population that are price-sensitive, but I think a lot of people are looking for a great value and a great experience. We’ve also found that 70 percent to 80 percent of people book directly on our Web site. So people are very passionate. I think that prior to our arrival, maybe people were picking on price, but now the issue of brand and product experience has been brought back to the category.

How much was the Google holiday giveaway and the Chihuahua thing engineered by PR?
Marketing and PR — [director of corporate communications] Abby [Lunardini] is right here — so it really is a joint effort. I give 100 percent of the credit to Abby for bringing the Chihuahuas to New York. We find that the amplifier effect of PR makes the marketing ideas much more visible and exciting. In terms of Google, marketing does lead where we brainstorm with Google. Once we commit to doing a partnership, we bring marketing and PR together.

I’m curious if when you think about Virgin if you look back to brands from the ’60s and ’70s, when there was more of glamor to flying.
We certainly have looked back to where there was glamor. I can think of my grandmother talking about wearing gloves and how come people don’t dress up to travel anymore.