At any given time there is a story in the local news of people “paying it forward.” Some instances are organic, like the “kindness chain” at a Starbucks in Florida. Others, like an initiative to provide holiday cards to military men and women overseas, take some coordination. Always the efforts are built on the philosophy of helping others in a selfless way. So what happens when a brand tries to use this social phenomenon as the basis of a social marketing campaign?
Last week JetBlue introduced its latest promotional effort, a campaign called “Fly It Forward” that provides consumers worthy of admiration with a free flight and gives them the chance to do the same for others.
The project, devised by marketing agency Mullen, based in Boston, kicked off with a Chicago community worker-turned-United Nations delegate who received a ticket to New York City. She, in turn, awarded one to a woman who was in rehab after losing both her legs in an accident, and the trend continued. JetBlue launched the campaign with four profiles selected by JetBlue crew members and a planning team that “scoured the social web for deserving stories.” Then it turned the job over to the people of Twitter, asking them to nominate “Fly It Forward” candidates.
“These aren’t intended to be marketing stories or JetBlue stories,” Marty St. George, JetBlue’s senior vice president of commercial, says. “These are customer stories that illustrate the impact that travel can have to make dreams come true.” With its continuous stream of compassionate video content and serialized storytelling, #FlyItForward has generated 1,192 posts and nominations to date. Twitter users are calling it “a beautiful idea,” and an “awesome way of awarding humanitarian efforts to those who deserve it.” According to the company, there’s no campaign end date in sight.
It’s common practice for airlines, with their deep need to inspire customer trust, to show their benevolent side. This can range from sweeping corporate social responsibility efforts to improving individual customers’ lives. At Delta, the Force for Global Good program ensures that its employees give their time and energy to such organizations as Habitat for Humanity and the United Way. Southwest Airlines’ Project LUV Seat upcycles its leather seat covers to create new products, including much-needed shoes for children in Kenya. British Airways, meanwhile, is giving tickets to expatriates who miss their families abroad. The sentimental “Welcome of Home” campaign went live this month and will award select Twitter users with a free round trip.
Paying it forward can also happen close to home. Last year, Canadian airline WestJet staged a Christmas miracle for some of its passengers, generating over 36 million YouTube views and plenty of emotion online. Now it’s back with a new campaign called “Above & Beyond” that profiles Canadians “who make a difference in the lives of everyone they meet.”
One video in the series features a high school teacher who asked his students to write letters to their future selves, held on to them for twenty years, then mailed them back. “It’s like this little gift of somebody that I’d forgotten years ago,” a former student said.
Here too the airline is inviting consumers to nominate inspiring people while displaying its “caring culture” through storytelling. “The cause strategy of asking someone to nominate a recipient is powerful,” says Angela Hill, founder and chief brand strategist of global branding agency Incitrio and a video marketing instructor at the University of San Diego. She adds that such campaigns are “more like PSAs than traditional advertising.”
Now that 94 percent of global consumers “expect companies to do more than play a limited role in communities or simply donate time and money,” showcasing a brand’s investment in social good has become an important part of brand marketing. One study found that 73 percent of millennials are willing to try a new and unfamiliar product if the brand supports a good cause.
What’s more, research shows that when consumers feel happiness and other positive emotions they are more likely to share content online. Coupling positive consumer stories with the social media needed to spread them to potential customers can go a long way toward humanizing airlines and eliciting trust.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of travel and overlook the reasons why people do it,” St. George says. “It’s the stories, those connections with individuals, that inspire us all.”
And if they can boost consumer sentiment toward airlines in the process, all the better.