Hitting The Mark

Hitting The Mark

Conversations with founders and investors about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success with your host, brand strategist and author Fabian Geyrhalter.

Fabian

EP071 – David Neeleman, Founder & CEO, Breeze Airways (JetBlue, and others)

Strategic Clarity + Verbal Clarity + Visual Clarity

David Neeleman is the Founder of 5 airlines and changed the way people experienced surprise and delight by flying JetBlue.

 

During the pandemic, he launched his latest airline brand, Breeze, and I sat down with David to talk about what branding means to him, what makes great company culture, how a book inspired the JetBlue brand, and his preferred airline naming process (in the case of JetBlue the name was derived the Friday before a Monday launch).

 

Needless to say, an episode that is packed with insights from a truly amazing brand builder I believe all of us are thrilled to hear from on the subject of branding.

Notes

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Welcome to the show, David.

David Neeleman:
Thanks for having me on. I’m looking forward to talking about anything you want to talk about.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
That’s very kind. It’s such a pleasure to have you. I’ve been working relentlessly on getting you on the show. So I’m thrilled that we finally get the chance to do this. You launched four successful airlines, five if we count Breeze. They are Azul, WestJet, Morris Air, and of course, JetBlue, a brand that changed everything in the eyes of travelers and marketers alike.
I know the term surprise and delight is a marketing buzzword these days, but it seems like JetBlue had something to do with the creation of the term. At least that’s how I, and millions of others, felt when they first sat down on a JetBlue flight. But here you went at it again for the fifth time. How is the Breeze brand different? Where did you find space to innovate in, or improve upon, or how have customers’ mindsets changed over the years when it comes to flying?

David Neeleman:
One of the things I learned at JetBlue is, well, one of the things, many things I learned at JetBlue, but one principle was the more you exceeded the expectation, the more buzz that was created. And so that’s really what happened with JetBlue is that people were expecting kind of a typical startup, old airplane, lousy service, no TVs, that kind of stuff. They get on a brand-new airplane, leather seats, smiling people, live television, and it just blew their minds. And I think certainly our brand was good, our name was great, and you could have Amy Curtis on here and she’s doing the same thing at Breeze as she did at JetBlue, to talk more about how the brand was, but I always knew if we could just blow people’s minds, and we could… I had read Tipping Point about that time from Malcolm Gladwell. I think probably his first book.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Yeah.

David Neeleman:
And it just talked about spreading the word, and how it travels, and how good word travels. So that really was important. Breeze is a little bit different. At JetBlue, we were all about… We were a customer service company that just happened to fly airplanes. And so we just said we want to smile at people. But back then we didn’t have apps. We didn’t have… The internet was certainly there, and it was important, but it wasn’t the same. And so as we started to conceptualize Breeze, and just starting from the name and, the check-in, and the logo, and the really easy, the E Z with the check on top of it.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Yep.

David Neeleman:
We wanted things just to be breezy and easy, and just very, very simple. And then it kind of evolved into, okay, this is a technology company that just happens to fly airplanes. And so we’re kind of positioning ourselves as a technology company, knowing that… We were fortunate into launch into a period of time where there was a lot of snapback of people wanting to fly because of COVID, and a lot of pent-up demand. And we decided that we didn’t want to have people waiting on hold for six, seven hours to speak to us if they had to make a change, that we really wanted to be able to just be able to chat with them and have them send us a message and us to respond in less than 10 minutes.
I was reading a customer… Someone sent a message to our Facebook site and talking about how great the service was. They were stuck in traffic. They couldn’t make it to the airport, they missed their flight. So they just sent us a message, and within minutes the flight had been changed to the next day. They turned around and went home. Just not having to do traditional stuff, I think all that creates a brand.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Mm-hmm.

David Neeleman:
I see brand as visual, and beautiful planes, and all that kind of stuff, but I also see it in the day-to-day interaction of our customers with us, and how easy it is, and how technological it is, and how simple it is, and how different it is from what everyone else is doing.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Yeah. And I mean, the brand feels straight to the point. So you talked about how the logo accentuates the letters E and Z, visually connoting the word easy, right? You also trademarked Seriously Nice, and you talk about technology and kindness, and how the two of them can actually be merged. So the whole idea of nice and easy, it really gets down to simplicity. And that seems to be the underlying force behind the airline brand. And simplicity can easily be seen as a budget airline that is just… that doesn’t deliver because it’s just easy. But simple can also be delightful, right? Things get done, they get done the way that you want to.

David Neeleman:
Right.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
You want to send a text message. You don’t want to go through the hoops. And I also learned that when you fly Breeze, you can actually, when you’re at the gate, you can make changes right on the app rather than going to an agent and doing all of that. So simplicity in a way is what everyone seeks today. So this is fascinating.

David Neeleman:
Yeah. It’s interesting because we have a very clean app. It’s awesome. It’s functional. It’s very clean. And even on our website, if you went to it to book, it’s clean, and now we have marketing people saying, “Hey, we need to put banners on there. We need to have rolling stuff, selling other stuff.” And the technology people are saying, “No, you can’t do that. We need to keep it clean and simple, and not muck it up and look like the other ones.” So there’s always this tension between the old way of doing things and the new technology of making it look clean and easy.
And when you fly Breeze, not only can you… You book it, the fare’s cheap, you add on your $20 bag, you want to carry it on, or do you want to like check it? It’s 20 bucks or whatever. You do all that. You can take it off. You can add another one. You can change your flight 15 minutes before the flight, do everything you want. But then when you get on board, the plane’s clean. It’s simple. You’ll be able to sign onto a TV show, or whatever you want to watch, a movie.
On this fleet, we don’t have internet. The next fleet we will. But the flights are short. You’re an hour, hour and 15 minutes, you watch a quick TV show or whatever. But the experience of being able to… 95% of our flights, we have no nonstop competition. So to be able to fly from Columbus, Ohio to New Orleans, and do that in an hour and a half, instead of connecting through Atlanta, or connecting through Dallas, or Charlotte, or one of those hubs, and spend three and a half hours on a flight and spend typically twice as much as what we’re charging, you just get this great value proposition. And that really helps the brand. It’s easy to book, but it’s also easy to fly because, boom, I’m there. I’m to a place that I hadn’t thought of going. Charleston in July, in August, thanks to Breeze, had more airplanes than they’ve ever had in their history.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Oh, wow.

David Neeleman:
And this is right in the middle of COVID because there’s a lot of people that went to Charleston this summer that never thought they’d ever go to Charleston because we made it easy. It was an hour flight, it was 59 bucks, another 20 bucks for your bag, easy to book, you got there, saw all the history, ate all the great food, had a great time, and now you’re like, “Where else does Breeze fly? I want to go do that again.”

Fabian Geyrhalter:
And I want to go back to something that you said before where you… I mean, it’s about easy, it’s about simplicity, and that’s kind of like the brand essence, or the DNA, or whatever you want to call it, right? But that’s at the heart of it. And when you start fighting marketers or web people who are like, “We got to put this here and this here and this.” And it’s so easy, no pun intended, to say no to all of this, because it’s like this is about simplicity, so less is more. And I just think it’s always so important for a brand to have that North Star of like this is it, right?
Let’s talk about… Well, let’s talk about how challenging this brand launch must’ve been for you. It must’ve been the most challenging out of all of your brand launches during the pandemic. You must’ve been knee-deep trying to save one airline while getting another off the ground all during this unprecedented pandemic. How was launching an airline during COVID? I mean, talk about resilience in business.

David Neeleman:
It was hard. I mean, first of all, there was… I had the airline in Brazil that was going through a really difficult time because of COVID. I had privatized TAP in Portugal. I was dealing with that. That airline was shut down, and we had 55 employees at Breeze. All of a sudden it’s where we did need funding. We needed it because the money from Azul that I was going to make from Azul and TAP were going to fund all of Breeze. And all of a sudden that was pretty well shut off and frozen at the time.
So we had to do fundraising. We had to do… We had people scattered all over the country, and we were certifying an airline. So they were in all different pockets of the country. And it just, it really, culture is just so important to us. And we have people working together and comradery and high fiving each other at the end of every day, and now you can’t touch each other, all that kind of stuff.
It was difficult. And I think it did have an effect on morale. Now, I’m sitting here in our Salt Lake City offices. Awesome, full of people, just had three impromptu meetings with people, got a lot of work done, nothing that I could have done over Zoom. And so it was difficult, but it’s just kind of… It’s a real credit to the team that we got it done and we got certified, we got the airline launched, and we were very aggressive in our launch.
We had 13 airplanes, that we went from zero to 13 airplanes in a matter of less than 90 days, and 16 new cities and 39 routes. Probably a little bit more than maybe we should have. We bit off a little more than we could chew. But now the operation’s running great. We’re looking to the future where the 220s are coming on, and we’ll be able to deliver next month, and we’ll start flying them in the second quarter of next year hopefully if with all the certifications we have to do, and then we’re going to be doing a whole different thing with those airplanes. So it was difficult, but we had really great people, and that they really pulled it off. And now we’re… I think the hard part’s over.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Well, and you talk about the culture. And I feel like culture is really at the heart of a brand, right? Without great culture, there simply cannot be a great brand in my eyes. I heard you tell the story about how when the pandemic hit and your revenue went down 95% with Azul, right? You asked employees of the airline in Brazil, if anyone was able and open to taking a few months off without pay. And out of your 13,000 Azul employees, 10,000 of them said that they would do it since they love the company.

David Neeleman:
Yes.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Right? And they wanted to play their part in saving it. That’s just mind-blowing.

David Neeleman:
Yeah.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
I mean, that just says so much about a culture that has been created over the years. And now you call Breeze the nicest airline in the world, right? So you have that… You want to have the precedent. What are some of your key learnings of running airlines since, gosh, I don’t know, like 1984, I think, right? What are some of your key learnings in creating a strong company culture that you can then use to actually build an entire brand upon?

David Neeleman:
Well, I think it all starts with communication to our people. First of all, you hire great people. You train them really well. You set the expectations. When Amy Curtis first came up with this idea of Seriously Nice, I thought, “Wow, could we deliver on that?” She goes, “We absolutely can. It’s the one thing we can deliver on. Even if the weather’s bad or the plane’s broken, we can always be Seriously Nice.” And so that’s awesome. I bought into it really quickly, and said, “That’s great.”
But then when you hire people and you say, “Hey, we’re Seriously Nice. We want to be the nicest airline and we’re going to tell our guests onboard our aircraft that”, then they basically expect that from you. But the payoff is if they think you’re going to be nice and you are nice, then they’re nice back to you, and your job’s a heck of a lot more fun than having to kind of wake up grumpy, and be grumpy, and have them grumpy in return. And then your job’s just not fun.
So that’s just really important is that you start the day positive, and we try and really hire positive people, and train them well. And then we communicate with them. Once a month, we have what’s called an all-hands meeting, which we did today, where I’m there with the other senior executives of the company. We take questions in advance that we can answer. We talk about the last month, we talk about how we did performance-wise, we talk about the future, talk about all the great things that are happening. And we just keep people in the huddle. We have them part of the process, and part of what we’re doing.
Our CFO has a thing called Breeze Brilliance, where he talks about cost-saving measures, and invites everyone in the whole company, “Send your cost-saving idea to this address, and we want to hear from you.” So it’s just inclusion and making people feel like they’re part of what’s going on instead of just being out there. And if they see something, or they don’t like, then they can raise their hand and say, “Look, this isn’t Seriously Nice,” or, “This isn’t… I don’t like the fact that we’re wasting this money because we have profit-sharing, and I want to make sure we get some of that.”
So it’s just a culture that you build of inclusion. And like I said, we were playing from behind because of the pandemic, because it was hard to do that, but now we’re in full force and working really hard on that. And Gareth is in charge of, not only the external communications, but internal, which is the most important part of his job.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
And you also, threw out profit-sharing, and that’s not usual. So that changes morale and culture too I’m sure because everyone feels like they actually have a piece of the pie.

David Neeleman:
Absolutely. You want to feel… We actually did a Series B round recently, and there was enormous amount of participation from the people in the company. For a private company, for people putting in money, I think probably of the 200 million we raised, I think over 2 million came from our own people, our own crew, our own team members here, our teammates that really wanted to participate in the upside. So they’re really invested, not just emotionally, but also financially.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
And on the official launch day, which was earlier this year, staff, crew, and passengers used hand signals to simply mimic the Breeze logo, which is a simple check mark, right?

David Neeleman:
Yeah.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Super smart. Not many brands can claim to have their logo translate into a hand sign. I’m a big believer in simplicity in logos to the extent that a child can remember and draw it easily. With an airline, this is even more crucial since we want people to recognize a plane from the ground when you spot it up in the air or on the runway. You have definitely accomplished this with Breeze. You talked a little bit about it, but how was that brand development? Was it an actual breeze? I mean, you have to use the pun at some point. How involved did you get in the process with the agency? And is the hand signal something that is sticking with flyers to this day because it was a really smart idea?

David Neeleman:
We’re going to make sure we do it at the right angle, so we’re not losers, right?

Fabian Geyrhalter:
That is important. Yes. You can’t flip that photo.

David Neeleman:
It’s got to be at that angle. That was just something that evolved I think from our first flight attendant class. We didn’t actually come up with that as part of the process. It’s just something that people evolved that check mark. And the first time I saw it, I was like, “What is that?” I didn’t really get it, but it’s become kind of a great thing in the company. But as far as coming up with a name, it’s always a difficult process. JetBlue was no different. We basically decided the final name the weekend, the Friday before the Monday launch. All the branding agencies had come up with Chocolate, and the last name that they were going to pick was TrueBlue. And I just thought that was too sweet. I didn’t really like it. It didn’t really resonate with me.
And I said, “Ah, it sounds like a frequent flyer program,” which is what it became. But then Amy Curtis and I were talking on the phone, and she said, “How about JetBlue?” And I said, “Awesome. Let’s do it.” So Breeze was kind of just a name that was hanging out there. We had looked at Moxy, and then we got kind of threatened by Marriott because they have Moxy Hotels. I always wanted to name JetBlue Moxy. I thought that was kind of a cool name. As it turns out-

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Wasn’t there a taxi? Wasn’t a taxi as part of it? Then there was a whole thing.

David Neeleman:
Yeah, JetBlue was Taxi. We were going to expand all the planes yellow with blue, white, and black checkered marks.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Yeah, yeah.

David Neeleman:
But Spirit’s got that yellow color nowadays, which we don’t want. So Breeze just kind of hung out. It just was there, and it just kind of grew on everybody as we went along, and I’m really happy with it. I couldn’t be happier. We literally had hundreds and hundreds of names that we looked at, and no, no, no, no. My grandson, he wanted to name it Epic, which I thought was kind of cool. He said, “How about Epic?” But Breeze is good. We’re happy with this name.
And I always thought really, and this is… I remember when I came off the turnip truck from Utah to New York to start JetBlue, this ad agency wanted 160,000 a month just to develop our brand and all that. And I said, “Look, what’s going to develop our brand is how we interact with our customers every day.” The name will never make us, we’ll make the name. And I really think that with Breeze too. But it’s a name that you want to be proud of. So I’m proud of Breeze, but Breeze will mean a lot more to people two years, five years, 10 years, and 20 years from now, just like JetBlue does, than it did when we first announced it.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Yeah. What does branding mean to you, David? I mean, you’ve been through plenty of brands that you created, all successfully. And I know you play in other fields outside of the airline industry as well. What does branding mean to you?

David Neeleman:
It’s a feel. It’s how people feel when they interact with you. It’s how they… It’s an emotion to a great degree. And it’s how people feel. I mean, when I say Apple to you, you think about a lot more than just a fruit. You think about all of your interactions with Apple, and all of the dopamine you get from using your phone. So when you think about Breeze, I really want you to feel an emotion of getting away, and seeing new things, and trying new foods, and meeting new people, and visiting friends and family. And it’s really an experience that evokes emotion. And I think that’s really what makes companies successful. If you can create that emotional connection with your customers, where they’re just…
One time I was, after I gave a speech, I talked to a guy and he said, “Your company really matters to me.” And I thought that was really cool. And he explained that for every weekend, he flew from New York to West Palm Beach. And if it wasn’t for Breeze, I mean, for JetBlue, then his life wouldn’t be good, it wouldn’t be nearly as good because he could never have that ability to fly in comfort, watching TV, going and getting away from New York City in the middle of the wintertime.
And I think to the degree your company matters to people, and you have that emotional connection, that’s how successful you’ll be, obviously. There’s a direct correlation between that, those two points of mattering, emotional connection, and success in the marketplace.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
I love that. Absolutely. What’s next for the Breeze brand? Obviously, a lot, but what are you excited about in the next six months, besides the obvious, which is us getting this pandemic finally under complete control, but what’s next?

David Neeleman:
Yeah. And I’m encouraged about the pandemic. I mean, obviously, it’s a horrible thing. We’ve seen a lot of death and sickness. But in Brazil, they’ve been through the worst, and we’re now flying 150% of our… We’re 50% higher than our pre-pandemic numbers in Brazil.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Oh, wow. Great.

David Neeleman:
So I can see the clear path. But the big news coming up is our new aircraft that… The current aircraft we have are used aircrafts, but they’re great, two-by-two seating, very comfortable. People love them. We got some of those from Azul in Brazil, and some others from Air Canada and some other places, and they do a great service, and they look brand-new on the inside. But starting next month, we’re going to take delivery of our first ever Airbus A220. It’s a fabulous airplane, big windows, two and three seating, two-by-three, but really has range. It can fly six, seven hours of range very comfortably. We’ll have a mixed class. We’ll have some premium seating in there that people can upgrade for, for a fraction of the cost that they would have to fly first class on some of our competitors. They’ll be able to still go nonstop where nonstops don’t exist, and it will really open up travel to a lot of people, to a lot of really fun places.
We’ll have internet, streaming internet on those airplanes. Not on the first day, but hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have all those up and going. We’ll be able to really up our game on our app, as far as ordering food and doing a lot of stuff that you can order in advance and have your food waiting for when you get there. So we’re going to do some really innovative things with that airplane. So it’s an exciting time for Breeze, and we’re really looking forward to the future.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Absolutely. How can people follow you personally, or get to book their next getaway on Breeze?

David Neeleman:
Well, flybreeze.com, and download our app, and play with it. It’s a great thing to do. I’m on Instagram, @DavidNeeleman, but I don’t post that often, unfortunately. My daughter used to run my Instagram site and she’s busy with other things.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
She’s got other priorities these days.

David Neeleman:
Yeah, Gareth has to… But I have… A lot of my followers are in Brazil, so it doesn’t seem right to be doing a lot of Breeze stuff when I have a lot of followers in Brazil. So I just kind of post on very important things like 9/11. But fly Breeze and you’ll see some new routes coming up next summer. We’ve got 39 routes today, and to come fly us, you’ll really love it.

Fabian Geyrhalter:
Perfect. Fantastic. Well, David, I know you’re limited on time. You’ve got a lot on your plate. This was really informative. Thank you so much for spending this time with us and sharing your insights with us.

David Neeleman:
Thank you very much.


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