The strongest brands in America, according to a new study, are not American. They are German and Japanese luxury car brands: BMW; Mercedes; and Lexus. But the U.S. brand with the greatest "social currency" is one that has existed a mere ten years (and it's not even an Internet or tech company): JetBlue. (Read the full study here, PDF file.)
Overall Brand Social Currency Ranking
Information Architects' "Cosmic 140" shows just two brands among "The 140 Most Influential People on Twitter" and one is JetBlue. Twitter itself features JetBlue as a case study on "smart corporate twittering."
JetBlue clearly is not singing the blues today. Their customers are singing their praises according to the brand social currency study. Song? Remember them? A former rival to JetBlue a few years back. Now just another airline business swan song.
Airline Brand Social Currency Ranking
This ranking tells a story, in fact, several: One is that upstart airlines have reinvented the category and have built strong brands and attachments with customers. The old guard carriers still get us from point A to point B, but as brands they are struggling at best, on life-support at worst (think various American car brands). How will the United-Continental merger alter the flying-field?
The other story that emerges from these numbers is the astonishing, rapid rise and brand powerhouse that JetBlue has built in just a few years.
The ascent has not been without operational and brand bumps along the way. (Never mind setting the business aloft into the headwinds of the 2000-2001 recession and 9/11). There was the Valentine's Day Crisis of 2007—which later became a Harvard Business School "bad" business case study—when 131,000 passengers were delayed to due to winter storms and related operational snafus.
The fiasco made JetBlue the butt of the late night comedy show circuit. This past February, some passengers were stranded for 11 hours on a plane. In both cases, angry customers received compensation and an unusually vocal apology from the company's CEO.
In our hyper-social word, these incidents, while not Toyotas or BPs, can seriously wound businesses and brands that are not sure and secure, like a Song, or a United even (guitars can break the brand some). Southwest encountered Kevin Smith.
Fast Company interviewed JetBlue's Chief Commercial Officer, Robin Hayes, to get his perspective on JetBlue's brand-building and social currency success.
How JetBlue is Building Brand S.O.C.I.A.L. Currency
Standing for something
"Jet Blue was formed with the idea of bringing humanity back to travel and our engagement with our customers is central to that mission."
Operationalizing the brand
"Whether it be in the airport, on the planes, on the phones, or online, the connection with our customers is a key factor in how we do business."
Conversing with customers, broadly
"To be properly in touch with the community, it requires the ability to understand and react to the collective conversation that occurs." "Be wary of the disconnect between the voice of a social media campaign and the more broadly distributed brand perception. We look for opportunities to augment larger mainstream campaigns with social media initiatives."
Involving, immersing employees
"Social media involvement requires understanding and involvement from all aspects and departments of the company."
Advocating the brand ... authentically enabling passengers and followers to advocate
"For JetBlue, we understand the ability to market to a social community is dependent on our customers' willingness to hear and spread those marketing messages." "All-You-Can-Jet" (affinity program) and the community that developed we chose not to market it heavily ourselves. We wanted to let our customers share and connect with each other and let them share their stories."
"Waiving the carry-on bike fee ... shows we quickly identify and adapt new policies based on feedback we receive through social media channels. It demonstrates our ability to listen and react holistically."
Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says that JetBlue's strong word of mouth buzz has been fueled by exceeding passengers' expectations.
"People love to talk about JetBlue because the experience is so unexpected. Most airline travel has a particular pattern: small seats, bad entertainment, and little (if any) food. JetBlue breaks this pattern. Leather seats, your own entertainment system with dozens of channels, and at least some choice of food. People can't stop talking about the experience because they have to express their surprise especially given the "value" price. They are so used to airline travel being poor, late, or uncomfortable these days that cases where a company seems to care and provide good service seems noteworthy. Satisfaction itself is unexpected."
Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners and author of the study, thinks JetBlue's blue chips, visual identity, terminal, TVs, and amenities are distinctive but not breakthrough different. "Every aspect has been copied or exists with another airline. As a brand that follows this logic of distinctiveness, social media and technologies are the absolute godsend communications tool. A distinctive brand disproportionately benefits from social tools."
Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, is developing a case study on JetBlue's social strategy with Sara Gaviser Leslie, David Hoyt, and David Rogier. Aaker also points out the risks that their social media strategy carries. "Twitter amplifies all messages, not just the positive ones. The casual conversations also build an expectation of immediate response from the company which JetBlue must maintain."
Thus far though JetBlue's brand and social approach seem to be anything but grounded on the tarmac.