Where’s the Party? At 30,000 Feet

Virgin America marketing chief: 'What would Richard do?'

Luanne Calvert is used to working without a net, executing first-class, buzzworthy campaigns and forging relationships on the fly.

When the five-year-old airline Virgin America, partly owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, hired her in October 2011, it lauded Calvert’s considerable brand and digital marketing experience. (Now Virgin America’s chief marketer, Calvert rose through the ranks of Yahoo, Google and ad agencies such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.) What it didn’t mention was her appetite for risk—and attention. “Luanne laughs louder and talks faster than anyone in the room. She throws caution to the wind. She wants to be first to try anything,” says Tom Bedecarre, chairman of the agency AKQA and Calvert’s former boss at Citron Haligman Bedecarre.

Calvert’s next challenge: to redefine the business traveler and the best tactics for marketing to them. To do that, she and her team are exploring how today’s always-plugged-in, entrepreneurially defined traveler is evolving beyond the corporate road warrior of the ’90s.

Calvert, who just turned 50, is bringing her own brand of Silicon Valley cred to the task. As creative director at Google, she worked on the first video campaign for Gmail and the branding of the first YouTube/CNN presidential debates. As Yahoo’s first marketing chief, from 1999 to 2002, she founded the viral marketing team and bestowed upon herself the title “Queen Bee of Buzz Marketing.”

Virgin America, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is experiencing a growth spurt, expanding to 19 cities, with Newark’s Liberty Airport in the wings. The youthful, upscale brand is built on splashy parties, purplish nightclub lighting and close ties to colorful Virgin Group founder Branson. Calvert’s job is to promote the carrier beyond its startup identity, positioning it as an established player featuring discount pricing and a hip, stylish customer experience for travelers no matter whether they want to relax or to work onboard—all with a modest $10 million-$15 million marketing budget, per industry estimates.

Calvert and Virgin America have worked with the San Francisco-based boutique agency Eleven since 2008. Together they launched the Experience Virgin America project (experiencevirginamerica.com) in September 2012, its centerpiece an interactive video featuring digital movers and shakers and a sampling of content—sports, concerts, movies, games—offered on Virgin’s onboard channels. Support comes by way of outdoor ads, banners and passengers’ own in-flight photos, which were displayed on a billboard in Times Square in real time last September. By mid-January, the Experience Virgin America site had achieved 300,000 unique visitors and 31 million social media impressions, per Calvert.

Here, the marketing boss reflects on lessons learned and what lies ahead.

What’s a good example of Virgin America marketing culture in action?

A perfect example was the morning last April when I was headed to my office and ended up on a jet full of partying college grads headed for Fort Lauderdale. As a Cyber Monday promotion in 2011, a month after I started this job, Virgin America sold a chartered, round-trip plane ride for $60,000 through a partnership with discount site Gilt.com. The deal sold in about four hours to a group of 148 Stanford University MBA students, who decided to go to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break. They picked a ’70s theme and showed up at the airport decked out in Afros, bell bottoms and gold lame. It was a hoot. On my way to work, I stopped by the airport to greet them. As they were ready to depart, one passenger canceled, and they talked me into taking his seat.

Did that Spring Break flight trigger any marketing insights?