A Quick Flight With David Tait: Like A Virgin
As executive VP of Virgin Atlantic Airways, David Tait set up, and then ran, the company’s hugely successful U.S. operation for almost 20 years. Now the head of his own firm, Tait recalls those early days with Branson and the marketing rules they broke—and profited from. Read on for a first-class tale from this aviation pioneer and raconteur.
There was a time when air travel was fun and exciting, and not soul-crushing and mind-numbing, as it is so often today—at least for those of us who still fly coach. One of the big brand successes of those high-flying days was—and is—Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic. Sitting right next to Branson on the flight deck, so to speak, in the early days was David Tait, who is described by travelindustrytoday.com (for which he is a regular blogger) as “the quintessential ‘airline guy.’
As executive VP of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Tait set up, and then ran, the company’s hugely successful U.S. operation for almost 20 years. He also has had stints at Wardair, Laker Airways, Air Florida (pre-Virgin), and Air Canada (post).
CMO.com editor in chief Tim Moran was lucky enough to catch up with Tait—now the head of his own firm, Consultait—during one of his layovers to talk about those early days with Branson and what kind of marketing rules they broke—and profited from. Read on for a first-class tale from this aviation pioneer and raconteur. (Editor’s Note: Since the interview was done, Virgin America was acquired by Alaska Air Group.)
CMO.com: What areas do you focus on as managing partner of Consultait?
**Tait:**I always like to say I got into the airline business by mistake, rather than by design, but my current clients are almost exclusively aviation-related. They range from Stowe Aviation in Vermont, where they’re rebuilding the airport and putting a charter carrier together, to a startup in Canada that’s about to introduce that country’s first ultra-low-cost carrier.
My biggest project at the moment is with a new generation of what people insist on calling “airships.” Built by Lockheed Martin and a U.K. company, these huge, helium-filled Hybrid Aircraft have the ability to lift up to about 100 tons in cargo. The first ones will have only 20 tons of lift, but they can land on any flat surface, including sand ice and water. It’s all incredibly exciting.
CMO.com: So, still flight and aviation today—which brings us to the origins of Virgin Atlantic. Can we hear about that?
**Tait:**Sure. I had worked for a guy called Sir Freddie Laker. He started what was sort of the Southwest of the Atlantic. It was actually walk up and pay, with no reservations at the very beginning. But Laker Airways grew very quickly to being the fourth largest in terms of passenger carriers across the Atlantic. I ran the U.S. operation, and the airline was doing remarkably well until it was illegally driven out of business by its major competitors in 1982. But that’s another story.
In 1983 I was working for a consulting company in Miami, when I got a call from Freddie Laker saying, “I just spoke to a guy called Branson who is looking to start an airline. He called me to see who I knew in the U.S. that could maybe help him. So expect a call from him.”
I’d never heard of Richard Branson. I’d heard of Virgin Records because I had a couple of them. Anyway, I got the call from Branson and went over to see this strange, bearded, hippie-like guy who worked on a house boat in London and had this notion that he wanted to pick up where Freddie had left off. He had all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas. One of them was flying an all-business-class DC10 across the Atlantic. I thought the guy seemed certifiably insane—he knew nothing about aviation—so, of course, I was immediately attracted to the project.
CMO.com: Sounds like quite an introduction. What happened then?
**Tait:**Well, it looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. The great thing with Richard is he was coming at it totally from a consumer standpoint. He’d been flying the Atlantic on a regular basis on Virgin Records business, and he was continually appalled at how expensive it was and how bad the service was. So Richard being Richard, he said, “I’ve decided surely even we could do this better.” Starting the airline almost caused a total rift with his partners in the record business, who thought he was nuts and it was going to cost a fortune if it failed.
Anyway, we drew up a model that would be quite different and unlike Laker, which had depended on having the lowest fare. We came up with a product that was going to be the best value for the money. While always having competitive fares, it wasn’t hanging its hat entirely on being the lowest price. That was something I learned from Laker—that if your only USP is the fact you have the lowest sale, you’re very vulnerable to your major competitors.
So that was how it started. We started with one airplane, one used 747 that in June of ’84 we started operations between Newark, N.J., and London, Gatwick. Notably it was not JFK to Heathrow, which is where the proper airlines flew at the time. I think the expression is, “On a wing and a prayer.”
CMO.com: And then, as they say, the rest is history. What did you learn about marketing from helping get Virgin Atlantic off the ground?
**Tait:**The key thing that made us different was that, at the time, Richard had discovered that the competition wasn’t doing a very good job of looking after its customers. So we came up with revolutionary ideas, such as: Maybe if the cabin crew smiled at the passengers, they’ll come back. Radical thinking by airline standards. And they did. It’s still the case today with major airlines. It being the early ’80s, we unashamedly went out and hired a lot of very attractive people, In fact, in those days you could actually ask for a photograph with job applications. The original ones were told they had to retire at the age of 35. Of course, you can’t do that kind of stuff now.
So we hired attractive—90% female—young people, some of whom had worked with airlines before. But most of them were new to it, and they brought a vibrancy and enthusiasm to the job that the customers liked. I was always delighted when people said, “Hey, the thing that we liked best of all was the way that your crew treated us.” It really came down to: You don’t train attitude. You hire it. It came down to hiring the right people. And the fact that they were working for a cool, young airline that was owned by a record company guy, it kind of had a bit of a rock-and-roll image to it that got everybody hyped up.
CMO.com: It sounds like today you would put the customer experience label on that, right? **
** **Tait:**Absolutely. Richard and I both shared the belief, and still do, that whatever business you’re in, your people are your product. So we hired the right people. But then it was all about engagement. We went out of our way to develop a culture, which still exists within Virgin today. Although we maybe didn’t realize it at the time, what we did with Virgin Atlantic built the brand foundation for all the subsequent Virgin companies to build on.
People will say to me now, “It must have been easy to start an airline when you had someone like Branson behind it.” Well, in 1983-84, nobody knew Branson. His reputation was built on the back of the airline and a lot of the crazy stunts that he did to get publicity for it, like flying hot-air balloons and sailing boats and stuff like that.
When it comes to product development, so many companies live in silos, where you have the product people, and you have marketing, IT, sales and finance—all of these different silos that really don’t talk to each other.
Richard and I got all our people involved in designing the product from day one. There was no such thing as a silly idea. First of all, a lot of ideas came from the cabin crew, who we’d get involved in working with the product people to make sure that, as happens with a lot of companies, we weren’t delivering a square peg to the round hole. It bred engagement, it bred a pride of ownership, a pride of association, and it was a very sort of virtuous circle.
CMO.com: Did you take the Virgin Records brand and try to duplicate it on the airline side, or was the thinking it was a separate brand? **
** **Tait:**No. The name—that kind of Virgin scroll, the big red V—that was on the label. We just took that, and we stuck it on the tail of the airplane—but we had to build brand equity. There was no particular brand equity in the name in that stage when the product was a singer or a song on a record. With the airline we set out to provide altogether different features that no other airline had put out there before.
We always believed that the customer is not always right but that the customer is always relevant. When you do focus groups with customers and say, “So what would you like to see on an airline?” what you get is very much tempered by what these people have seen before. You usually get a bunch of sheep with some guy saying, “Well, I’d like to see better food.”
OK, that’s great, but you wouldn’t get ideas like we got from one of our own cabin crew who said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be really cool if we could have a massage station on board? I know that’s a stupid idea, but …” We said, “No. That’s not a stupid idea. Let’s look at it.” Well, that woman ended up running a squad of about 250 on-board massage therapists. It’s no longer there, but for years it was a huge thing, and there was only one airline in the world offering it.
CMO.com: Were there other innovative ideas that helped you with brand identity? **
** Tait: Sure. There was only one airline in the world offering limos to and from the airport at both ends as a business-class inclusion, and that’s still the case. And that was again leveraging our smallness. A lot of people starting up new companies feel that the toughest thing is, “How do we compete with the big guy?” Well, actually, what we did with Virgin Atlantic is the classic David and Goliath story. We could put the free limos on our one New-York-to-London route, and because British Airways flew 15 London-to-U.S. routes, they couldn’t possibly put limos on every one of these just to compete with us. So there are a lot of times that being the little guy gives you all kinds of strengths that really drive your competitors nuts. We leveraged every one of these to the hilt.
We didn’t have any advertising budgets, so we had to create in-your-face, inventive, ballsy ways of getting the brand out there. Branson going across the Atlantic trying to beat the speedboat record, flying around the world in hot-air balloons and being rescued out of the Irish Sea when he almost killed himself … that got the Virgin name on the front page—albeit usually with a sinking Virgin-branded balloon or boat in the background.It got us all kinds of amazing coverage.
CMO.com: And all of this was done with very little or no budget? **
** **Tait:**Right. We didn’t have much money to do paid advertising. The very first ad we ran, for instance, was a classic example. We didn’t have the license to operate out of the U.S. until literally the day before our first flight. We had been selling tickets in the U.K., but we weren’t able to advertise or sell tickets in the U.S. It was just Washington dragging its heels.
But we had to get the name out there, so we came up with a ploy that we’d do some sky typing—you know, where little planes fly in formation and puff out smoke to form letters. It was Memorial Day in New York, with a clear blue sky, except for one little white cloud off in the corner. So these six airplanes flew over Central Park and start pumping out letters: “Wait for the English V-I-R-G-I- cloud .” If we tried to hit that one cloud in the sky, we wouldn’t have done it, but they managed to hit it, and it obliterated the ‘N.’ But there were enough people around with cameras even at that time to take pictures of it, and The New York Post the next day has a headline asking, “What is an English Virgi?” Of course they called us. So we got the story out, but we didn’t contravene any rules. We couldn’t have planned that better.
Remember, British Airways would spend as much in a day’s advertising as we had in a budget for the year. I think it was in our second year, we decided we’d love to get a Super Bowl ad. Even then it was like half-a-million dollars for a 30-second spot. We had a company called Virgin Airships that operated a Goodyear Blimp-type craft for advertising purposes. So with “Fly Virgin” on the side of it, we flew one over the Super Bowl stadium. They’ve since changed the rules about over-flight, I think very much as a result of what we did.
To be sure, we got ourselves on camera. We strung a belly banner underneath the airship—NBC was covering it that year—and it read, “NBC Cameramen are the sexiest men alive.” And so every time they cut away to go to someone else’s half-million-dollar ads, guess who was on there? We did a lot of really gutsy stuff like that.
CMO.com: Like guerilla marketing kind of stuff. **
** **Tait:**Exactly. “Jugular marketing” is the expression I love.
CMO.com: Let’s say you had it all to do over again, and now it’s 2016, and you have all these digital marketing techniques and channels and media at your disposal. How different do you think it would have been? **
** **Tait:**Well, you can deliver it very differently digitally, and it can be done a lot more affordably, and you’re talking to the whole country. In those days, of course, you could buy an ad in The New York Times and spend $150,000 on a page and never leave the New York DMA. It was a very local scatter-gun approach. The digital world has changed all of that.
So if we’d had at our disposal digital distribution then, it would have been a lot easier. But by the same token, because there’s so much of it out there, the quality of the content you’re putting out has still got to be in your face and make a lot of noise because there’s such a crowd of it out there. So the other part of it is, I think there’s a lot of analogue lessons that are getting lost in the digital world. For instance, one of my big bugaboos is when you do actually want to talk to someone and try to find a real human.
Normally, if you want to find a number to call, it’s hidden in the deepest, darkest corners of the website. And even then you have to go through sort of an electronic nightmare to actually get to someone. So in customer-service terms, the digital world is somewhat forgetting the importance of people as opposed to just websites in the process.
Same thing at airports now with kiosks at check-ins and so forth. The better airlines, stores—look at Apple Stores for a good example—always will have people wandering around to say, “Can I help?” But a lot of that, even in what are supposed to be customer-service industries, has gotten lost. In terms of marketing and big data, too many companies seem to be run by what the numbers say is happening in the marketplace. And I don’t know if such organizations are giving enough credence to not just the live feedback from their own people, but the involvement, the engagement that you get from paying attention to them as opposed to just pouring over the numbers all the time.
CMO.com: From your long and varied experience in a very interesting industry, do you have any advice for CMOs?
**Tait:**The key is: Don’t forget to engage your people at every opportunity. That, to me, is huge. I think that is absolutely what made the difference, what makes the difference, with Virgin today. They’re the face of it for you if you’re in a service business, but even if you’re not in a face-to-face service business, they make the difference. So don’t just focus on numbers all the time. And another big one is not obsessing with your competition. So many companies are so busy looking over their shoulders at what the other guys are doing that they really become a sort of watered-down clone of all of their competitors.
I heard somebody once say that if you spend all of your time judging yourself by how well you compare to your competition, then you’re never going to get any better. And we [realized] that at Virgin. When we came into it, competing with these huge entrenched airlines, the natural thing would be, “Hey, we’re going to try and be as good as they are.” We didn’t want to be as good as they were. We knew that they weren’t that good, so we just focused from day one on being demonstrably better than them at every turn.
As Mark Twain said, there are really no new ideas out there. It’s about improving on the existing stuff. Ninety-nine percent of it is out there already, and 99% of the 99% isn’t that great. So you just do your damndest to do it better at every opportunity, and to do that you’ve got to be prepared to get a few things wrong along the way. You’ve got to try and just be better, be different and disruptive at every possible turn. And to do that, you’ve got to get into this mindset of: There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Gravity isn’t going to get in the way of us going straight up.
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