THE MARKETER: Customers first no flight of fancy

Paul McIntyre
By Paul McIntyre | 19 September 2014

Given that Virgin Australia’s top marketing executive has the official title of chief customer officer, it’s little surprise the airline’s just-launched big budget brand campaign is anchored around a narrative of its people and their credentials in customer service.
Mark Hassell is still a rare bird in blue chip companies with his customer-focused title and broad remit – ultimately he’s the go-to guy for brand, marketing and the all-important customer function. By that we mean everything from uniforms to the service culture and call centres.
A few weeks back Virgin Australia launched the third wave of its branding effort since 2011 with a major TV-led ad campaign which also spans cinema, out-of-home and yes, even newspaper print wraps – as out of fashion as they might seem to some.
But the strategy behind Virgin’s new “Let’s Fly” program is instructive.
Although Virgin has been flying Australian skies since 2000, Mark Hassell sees the Virgin Australia brand that replaced Virgin Blue, as little more than three years old and still in need of amplifying its core values through big master brand campaigns. Like Hassell’s job title, big brand campaigns, too, are rare these days.
“You need to look at where your business is in cycle terms and define whether brand campaigns are the right thing to do,” says Hassell. “People laughed at us three-and-a-half years ago when we said ‘We’re going to change the game here and we’re going to provide a really strong, stylish premium airline experience to rattle the competitor’. We’ve now created a premium alternative that had not existed since Ansett had gone.”
The first stage of Virgin’s overhaul in 2011 was relaunching its brand and livery. The next instalment in 2012 featured much of Virgin’s upscaled product and its push into business class. Those initiatives are now entrenched enough in public perceptions that Hassell wants to drive home to the masses the people thing; that Virgin’s service culture and people are its key difference.
A lot of companies talk the talk on customer service but Virgin is making more noise and effort than many in its organisational structure and culture to walk the walk.
Hassell talks about Virgin’s key achievement for the brand since 2011 as creating “indifference”. He uses the word “competitor” instead of Qantas but Virgin’s research tracking says people are now happy to fly Virgin if they can’t get on Qantas and when they do fly Virgin, their airline preferences shift.
“Our strategy is to win the hearts and minds of that indifferent group of people and I think we’re well placed to do it,” he says. “In economy we know that when people give us a go, the preference for us is stronger than the competitor. In business class it is significantly stronger than the competitor. We didn’t even have a business class until January 2012.”
As part of the management team’s latest mission, dubbed Virgin Vision 2017, the airline will focus on six key areas which include business growth opportunities, yield improvement and – in the words of CEO John Borghetti when he unveiled a $356 million loss for the 2014 financial year in August – “setting a new standard in customer experience and developing our people to their full potential’’.
The customer experience mission falls squarely on the shoulders of Hassell.
“From a consumer perspective for 2017 it’s very much around taking customer service to the next level,” he says. “Our product and service experience is going to continue the trajectory of continuous improvement and going above and beyond. It’s a great opportunity to really go out with a strong brand message.
“Last year was a tough year; the toughest year in Australian aviation history. We’ve come through that with a significant improvement in so many of our metrics. We don’t need to seek permission to be a premium carrier. We’ve proved we can do it,” Hassell says.
“This campaign is pretty much our opportunity to say: ‘We’re great for leisure, we’re great for business, there’s a range of fares, but we’re stylish and professional and give us a go.’
“Brand campaigns such as this one can do a lot of heavy lifting for us in a number of different ways. Particularly in creating that emotional connection, and I think this is where the brand campaign has got a big job to do – helping convert people to give us a go. It gives people a sense that Virgin is different, that Virgin Australia has changed.”

This story first appeared in the AdNews print edition on the 19 September 2014.
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