Virgin America’s digital experience is reinventing flying

You don’t have to think far back to remember a time when flying was the domain of suits rather than sweats. Flying looked good, and it was clear that someone, somewhere, was putting effort into the aesthetics. It’s hard to find the exact moment when air travel lost its luster, but at some point we traded in the more spacious, smoke-filled cabins of yesteryear for increased utility. But who says luxury and utility need to be mutually exclusive?

Airlines, relatively late to the obsession with branding that characterizes other industries, have begun to reimagine themselves. Unsurprisingly, Virgin Airlines is leading the charge for innovation. From Webby Awards to a Bronze Lion at Cannes (for “Use of Promo and Activation”), Virgin’s strategy since their 2007 launch has been to re-personalize travel. By putting the flyer first again, the Virgin design team has recaptured the imagination of weary travelers.

Jon Gordon, Virgin America’s creative director, accounts the creativity that permeates the offices of the in-house design team with its oft-recited mantra: What Would Richard Do? This attitude has been crucial to their goal of building a genuinely enjoyable flying experience, one that starts long before you reach your departure gate.

“It’s been key to creating a different kind of airline, from strategic decisions like our new-look website, right down to those little touches throughout the travel journey—like the music that Teammates choose themselves at check-in, or the fun messages that our Guest Services Teammates display on departure gates,” explains Gordon.

virgin-airlines-inhouse-design-aiga-tattoo

To usher in a new era of traveler-friendly designs, Virgin developed a web of interrelated engagement opportunities, including targeted direct email marketing and strategically located outdoor advertisements in key markets, relying on the way information proliferates on social mediums. This focus on social channels has forced Virgin’s design team to create truly responsive work.

“With relatively small advertising budgets and a very different product, we rely on word of mouth,” reveals Gordon. “Engaging with our social audiences has always been and remains very important to us.”

Their attention to producing social media-friendly activations has been particularly successful in reaching new flyers. Their play on the traditional pre-flight safety video, directed by Jon Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets), which was shared across media from news to social, reached more than a million viewers in its first 24 hours alone. Set to music and cast with dancers, singers, and choreographers from American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, the team’s effort to “remix the traditional perfunctory and uninspired idea of safety instructions into a piece of content that informed and entertained travelers at the same time,” quickly went viral.

The Virgin team doesn’t go at it alone, though. Working with agencies like Eleven Inc. and 1 Trick Pony, Gordon says that “strategic aim starts in-house, and we work collaboratively throughout the creative and development process with the agencies.” These collaborations have resulted in some of the company’s most successful developments.

In the past, airline websites were out of step with how we interact with technology. Virgin America’s new website, a project with Work & Co., began by streamlining the mobile booking experience down to its essential components. “Prior to initiating the redesign of our website, we looked at all feedback received by our social media and guest relations teams to identify areas we could improve,” says Gordon. The final Virgin experience, with well-spaced text and interactive buttons, foregoes images for an ease-of-use that extends intelligently into mobile use.

virgin-airlines-inhouse-design-aiga-blah

The BLAH Airlines campaign

But Virgin’s commitment to reimagining what an airline experience could and should be is perhaps best epitomized in their BLAH Airlines campaign. Armed with feedback from the guest relation’s team about what flyers didn’t want, the company produced a cinema verite-style short film chronicling the worst flight ever. “From the cramped seats, the harsh lighting, the lack of entertainment, and the underwhelming meal option of peanuts—the passengers have no choice but to be on ‘autopilot’ to get through the tedious journey.

“Just trying to watch the video is downright painful—and that’s the point. If you wouldn’t sit through the entire film, why would you pay money to experience it in real-life?” asks Gordon.