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Fearless Flyer

Virgin America CMO Luanne Calvert says, ‘I love to do things that scare the hell out of me’

 

Photo of Virgin America’s Chief Marketing Officer Luanne Calvert sitting in a red chair in an airport waiting area near gate 54B

 

Virgin America’s Chief Marketing Officer Luanne Calvert (B.S., ’85) smiles as the video Sir Richard Branson’s Guide to Getting Lucky plays on her laptop. In it, the cheeky Branson invites flyers to send a drink to a potential new friend using the company’s seat-to-seat service.


“I’m not a betting man, but I say your chances of deplaning with a ‘plus one’ are at least 50 percent,” Branson deadpans in the video, launched in April to promote the airline’s new Los Angeles to Las Vegas route.


It’s clear that Calvert connects with the Virgin Group boss’ brash rock-and-roll, never-been-done before marketing style because it’s not far from her own. In the past two decades, Calvert has shepherded unique campaigns for the world’s biggest brands, including Yahoo!, Google, eBay, Joe Boxer, Calvin Klein and Fendi, winning multiple awards and industry accolades.


Her luxury brand experience combined with her Silicon Valley marketing chops, landed her a coveted job as Virgin America’s CMO in October 2011. “With Luanne, marketing is equal parts art and science: creative ideas backed up with hard data,” says Frances Fiorillo, Virgin America’s senior vice president for People and In-Flight Services.


Calvert, quick and funny like one of her idols, Tina Fey, leads a 30-person team that operates like a stealth start-up. Her job, she says, is telling Virgin America’s story on a tight budget. The Branson video cost about $10,000 to make, but attracted a range of media attention from NPR to “The Today Show,” which equates to millions in advertising for Virgin. “We had international coverage and local bloggers commenting,” Calvert says during a recent interview at the company’s Burlingame, Calif. offices. “It was nuts.”


Not that the airline lacks for vocal fans of the “Virgin experience,” which includes on-board Internet access, attentive staff and a stellar in-flight entertainment system. Since launching in 2007, Virgin America has been consistently named the best U.S. airline by publications like Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler.


With PR, marketing and social media under one umbrella, Calvert’s Virgin America team is responsible for brand awareness, digital promotions, the website, the mobile site and the in-flight entertainment system content. The team also “influences” the customer experience, Calvert says, everything from on-board catering to the flight attendants’ uniforms to the look and feel of the aircraft to the customer loyalty program.


This month, Calvert is losing sleep over updating the company’s quirky, animated safety video, whose cast of characters features a fish, a bull and a nun. (“For
the .001 percent of you who have never operated a seatbelt before, it works like this,” the narrator explains.) “Everybody loves the safety video,” says Calvert, who is planning a marketing campaign to support its release, just as her team did when introducing trendy new employee uniforms designed by Banana Republic. (A Virgin America “travel glam” board on Pinterest features airline employees modeling the new uniforms.)

 

A native of Miami Beach, Fla., Calvert has made it a lifelong mission to face her fears. As a college student, she moved across the country, transferring from Florida State to SF State, where she first studied fashion illustration.

 

“I couldn’t draw so that didn’t last very long,” she jokes.


Photo of Luanne Calvert standing inside a Virgin America jetCalvert knew she loved both the creative life and math, so she dove into the marketing program, joining the advertising club and using it as a springboard for an internship. The late Jack Tenge, who ran the advertising club, and L. William Perttula, who retired in 2012, were particularly influential teachers, she says. Professor Perttula was “tough, quantitative and disciplined” in his intro to marketing class, she says. Many students found him too tough. Calvert didn’t. (“I was a low grader,” Perttula confirms. “I gave out fewer As.”)


At her first post-college job at PR firm Ketchum in 1986, Calvert was assigned to accounts marketing bananas and agricultural chemicals, which helped her learn the industry and build a solid foundation. “I didn’t get the brands I wanted,” she says. “But it led to Safeway and Orville Redenbacher.”


Calvert moved on to two advertising firms, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Citron, Haligman, Bedecarré Advertising (now AKQA), rising to the media director level before joining Black Rocket, a Goodby, Silverstein spinoff.

 

Black Rocket created the signature Yahoo! yodel. Working on the Yahoo! account, Calvert fell in love with technology and became known as the “queen bee of buzz marketing.” One low-cost guerilla campaign asked Internet surfers to click if they wanted to catch a bigger fish or find a cure for baldness. Calvert says she loved that Yahoo! was able to track how often people searched from the ads: “The holy grail of marketing is: Can you measure it?”


Calvert accepted an in-house job at Yahoo! in 1999, but in 2002 moved on to launch her own company, Mixed Marketing, which attracted high-profile clients like Netflix, eBay, Skype and Calvin Klein. (The agency’s huge “living” billboard in New York’s Times Square featured the ck One perfume models inside of bottles.)


Always committed to “finding what interests you and what keeps you challenged,” Calvert closed her agency in 2006 and moved on to Google as creative director in product and sales. There, she launched the company’s first video campaign ever for Gmail and worked on the CNN/YouTube branding for the two presidential primary debates in 2008.


In 2011, inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling “Eat, Pray, Love,” Calvert headed to Italy, where she consulted for the designer Fendi in Rome and iconic notebook/diary maker Moleskine in Milan. Finding her way to Venice, Calvert lived on the Grand Canal and launched a school that focused on digital publishing. Gilbert’s book inspired Calvert to sit in a cafe every day and write about her own life and then translate her book into Italian.


But in Venice she got an unexpected call from friend and “fairy godfather recruiter” Matt Hinde about the Virgin America job.


“I said ‘That is my job,’” Calvert says. “I know other people will want it, too. But that is my job. I just didn’t think anyone would be a better fit.”


Calvert packed her bags and hopped a flight back to San Francisco. She immediately connected with the Virgin America execs, accepted an offer and moved back to the West Coast.


Now living in San Francisco, Calvert, whose industry awards include Guerilla Marketer of the Year from Brandweek in 1998 for a Joe Boxer campaign and the Google creative Marketing Award in 2008, says her best ideas often come to her in spin class. “I get these epiphanies through endorphins,” she says.


Asked what drives her, Calvert says it’s partly fear. “I love change,” she says, “and I love to do things that scare the hell out of me.”

 

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