Dear CMO: Now that the dust has settled a bit on Jet Blue’s ill-fated flirtation with Yearly Kos, let’s all reflect on the lessons learned so we don’t have to go down this path on our own. I wrote about this over at Note to CMO, but the comments — both online and off — warranted a second look and some new takeaways.
Where to begin. Was the core of the problem a disconnect between management and marketing? Could it have been a purposeful effort to align the brand with a somewhat polarizing entity in order to create a little brand separation? Or was this just an example of one hand not knowing what the other was doing, punctuated by a management flip flop that would have made a politician proud? It might have been all three. The last deserves our attention.
To recap, Jet Blue made the decision to sponsor the yearly gathering of pundits associated with the Daily Kos, the “somewhat left of center” political blog. The second act of this tragedy was Bill O’Reilly, of The O’Reilly Factor fame, showcasing the sponsorship on his syndicated talk show. The climax of the drama was Jet Blue renouncing their sponsorship after being “outed,” and throwing their marketing department under the shuttle bus in the process.
Jet Blue has managed to offend absolutely everyone. They offended O’Reilly fans by sponsoring the event (roughly 49% of the population), then systematically offended Daily Kos fans (another 49% of the population), and then managed to offend everyone in their own marketing department (some portion of the remaining 2%, give or take).
Does anyone else think that somewhere, John Mackey is accepting the Gary Condit Award for “Object of Derision Most Happy Not to be on Page One Anymore”?
In an effort to avoid the necessary finger pointing, however, let’s explore what could have been. Here are two strategies that, while overly simplistic, might have helped avoid embracing this political tar baby: the “Go Left Strategy” and the “Go Right Strategy”:
Let’s assume that this was all done on purpose. Jet Blue, being a Left Wing Airline, decided that grass-roots politics and open debate is a core part of their brand image, much like Benetton used to feel that shock print ads were part of theirs. If that’s what they’re all about, then revel in it. They aren’t called “Jet Red” now, are they? Live it, be it, promote it. If that’s who you are, that is. And let the chips fall where they may.
Let’s assume that this wasn’t done on purpose. Jet Blue, being an airline and not a political institution, quickly comes to the conclusion that someone did something wrong. Jet Blue’s general counsel has an unambiguous conversation with Yearly Kos suggesting that their logo not be used on any marketing materials, the approval process …. or lack thereof …. is quickly audited to understand how this screw up could have happened and those in error dealt with in an appropriate fashion, and a clean response from the office of the CEO is issued suggesting that a few travel vouchers from private individuals were sent to Yearly Kos that have nothing to do with Jet Blue Corporate. Then, hold your breath and hope that the Whole Foods thing erupts again so you’re off the front page.
The Middle Path isn’t a recommended strategy. If the Yearly Kos fiasco was executed on purpose, you can’t abruptly “go right” without looking foolish. This, unfortunately for Jet Blue, appears to be an approximation of what they did.
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> Mixing brands with politics is risky business and unless you’re willing to live with the results, tread carefully here. Said another way, unless you’re the sole shareholder of a privately held company, you don’t have the authority to make this call. Period.
> Anything that polarizes your audience is something to be looked at more carefully before moving forward. Early in my career, I looked at rainforest preservation as a cause-related promotional angle on consumer audio products, largely because of the shared affinity between the target consumer and the cause itself. What I found was a startling 50/50 split between “I love it” and “I hate it.” Giving away music was less ambiguous, had a higher “I love it” quotient, and made my boss happier. Don’t offend your customers unless it’s for a really good reason.
> Make sure your team understands this point very, very well. You know us marketers. We get wound up in the emotion of good stories. We like things that get us connected. Unfortunately, we can all slap on blinders and forget that we’re not marketing to ourselves …. we’re marketing to our markets. And they might feel differently than we do. Yes, this is basic stuff, and it gets forgotten too often …. thus the gentle reminder. Developing a process that first identifies what can be put in play and then a process that prioritizes what gets done would have stopped this breakdown from happening.
> If you make a decision for good reasons, stick with it. Had Jet Blue really, truly felt that Yearly Kos was something they stood shoulder to shoulder with, then they should have gone on the offensive. If they had faced O’Reilly down, their fans would have thought all the more of them. And frankly, fans of The Factor probably wouldn’t have changed their travel plans if Jet Blue provided an experience for a price that worked best for them. As it stands now, they’re the punch line in a bad joke.
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Enough said on Jet Blue. A cautionary tale for us all, regardless of political orientation.