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JetBlue: Inspiring Humanity in Travel

The following is based on an episode of the Outside In podcast.

When a company builds the customer’s perspective into the way it works – into its culture and values, its leadership, how employees make decisions – it will outperform the market and create what I call Customer Inspired Growth.

Lots of companies publicly declare that they do this. But the real litmus test is: do customers agree? Do they feel it? Because, from the customer’s perspective, companies that really are “customer inspired” feel different.

JetBlue is one of those rare companies that customers openly adore. That’s high praise, especially in an industry that’s not traditionally known for eliciting much love from customers. But if you ask customers what exactly it is they love about the airline, it’s more than any one thing they can point to. It’s just a feeling they have.

“Very few people say, ‘I like the fact that you have an inch more legroom,’ or, ‘I like the fact that you give me the whole can of soda.’ Customers don’t actually think about that level of granularity like we do,” says Jamie Perry, vice president of marketing at JetBlue, during our conversation on the Outside In podcast. “They just get that there’s something there that’s better, that’s different, that gives you more than the other guys do. And that aggregates up into, ‘I love JetBlue.”

In the airline industry, the customer experience is the marketing. Therefore, a lot of what drives JetBlue’s marketing is getting people to experience the airline just once, closing what Perry calls “the perception experience gap.” Once they experience it, they get it. They’re hooked. “We call this love at first flight,” Perry says.

I met Perry at JetBlue headquarters in Long Island City, New York. For the past 11 years, has worked in the airline industry, the last 7 of which have been at JetBlue. I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to dissect all the ways JetBlue is creating customer love, and growing as a result.

“A framework within which to make decisions”

“The thing with airlines that I am consistently amazed by is the amount of stuff that can happen,” Perry says of the flying experience. “It is physically impossible to train people for every possible scenario that can arise. So, it’s really important to give people a framework within which to make decisions.”

Perry explains that it starts with the company’s mission: “Inspiring Humanity.” Or, put another way, always aim to make life easier and better for the people that fly on JetBlue – and make that experience accessible to all.

Underneath that mission are five company values – safety, caring, integrity, fun, and passion – all of which are underpinned by leadership principles and training that sets the tone for senior managers. Guided by these values, front-line crew members are empowered to make decisions in the moment based on the issue at hand and what’s best for the customer. “When employees find themselves in an unfamiliar and probably quite stressful and immediate situation, they have the tools at their disposal to know the right thing to do,” Perry stresses.

More to the masses”

By any measure, JetBlue is a large company. It’s on the Fortune 400, generates $7 billion in annual revenue, makes 1,000 flights per day, and carries more than 35 million passengers every year. Yet, in the U.S., JetBlue commands only 5% market share and focuses its marketing mainly on six North American regional focus cities.

As Perry explains, “We’re able to use our relative smallness compared to our peers to do things that they cannot. Whereas they have to maintain brands on a national level, we don’t. But on the other hand, we can get really personal and really high-touch with people.”

That goes back to JetBlue’s mission of to create an experience that is delightful for 100% of the cabin. JetBlue is well-known for all the little extras and perks it offers to flyers, like free Wi-Fi, satellite TV and extra legroom at every seat. How does JetBlue afford to do all that? Perry says it’s simply a matter of where the company has chosen to invest.

“Every airline has an amount of money available to them to spend on something. Most of the legacy airlines throw that at the top: on lounges, upgrades, Porsches driving between gates on connections — those kind of things. At JetBlue, we always felt that was the wrong way to go. We were founded on this idea of bringing humanity back to travel, and that wasn’t just for the 1 percent. It was for everybody. So, what if instead of giving very expensive things to the few we gave more to the masses?”

“Halo effect”

A few years ago, customer data showed that higher-spending passengers were increasingly unwilling to fly on transcontinental flights without some level of premium service – something JetBlue had not previously offered. The challenge was, how to launch a premium service – one that is by definition more expensive and therefore exclusionary – yet still stay true to the airline’s egalitarian ethos? How could they retain premium customers, stay relevant, and do it all “in a JetBlue way”?

The decision was Mint, JetBlue’s first premium service. Mint seats aren’t outrageously expensive, so they’re still attainable for most customers. All the crews who work on a Mint aircraft have been through hospitality training, so service throughout the cabin is elevated. And, Mint planes are outfitted with extra perks for everyone, like a mid-cabin marketplace stocked with unlimited free snacks and drinks. “We did not want to make all this fuss around Mint customers and then forget about the folks at the back,” he says.

Interestingly, Mint has created a “halo effect.” It’s reflected in Net Promoter Scores, which, as expected, are significantly higher for Mint than scores for the core JetBlue experience. Perry also notes that planes with the Mint experience receive higher core Net Promoter Scores than JetBlue planes without Mint.

“Keep challenging the constraints”

JetBlue continues to lead aviation innovation. Perry says, “It’s really important that we keep challenging ourselves to do things other people have not done, and to keep challenging the constraints that we believe exist.”

Pushing boundaries and thinking differently is always a balance of forces. At JetBlue, it’s a combination of aviation experts and fresh new thinking and talent from outside the traditional boundaries of the industry. For example, JetBlue funds an early-stage startup incubator, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and is a corporate partner of New Lab, a Brooklyn-based collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and design. JetBlue also invests in the BlueBud business mentoring program, connecting with pioneering food startups whose missions are centered on nutrition, sustainability, and social responsibility – all values that matter to JetBlue customers.

JetBlue’s decision to think differently and act human – to put customers at the center of it all – is no coincidence. It’s strategic. And it’s working. Perry sums it up by offering some advice: “Everything you do should be focused around some kind of insight or use case around the customer. If you’re not focused on the customer and making their experiences better, I don’t know what you’re doing. That should be the sole focus of every innovation that you seek to introduce.”

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