JetBlue Airlines: It's all in a Name
Published: June 2009
By Rebecca Johnson
To hear David Neeleman tell it, starting a budget airline in the crowded, difficult market of New York City is simple. Raising $128 million dollars? Piece of cake. Negotiating takeoff and departure times with the Department of Transportation? Walk in the park. Naming the airline? "It was," the then CEO of JetBlue Airways told reporters in July of 2009, "an interesting process." David Neeleman is a nice man. Interesting is the word nice people use when what they mean is "nightmarish."
The fact is, just two weeks before the press conference, Neeleman and his marketing team learned that the name they had all agreed on after a long and expensive search, True Blue, was already owned by another company. And that was after they'd considered more than 200 other names, from the sonorous Idlewild Transportation (after the original name for JFK) to the comic relief of Dairy Air. "In the end," Neeleman rationalized, "we'll make the name. The name will not make us."
The last time Neeleman—a Mormon with twinkly blue eyes, gray hair, and the kind of looks you'd get if you called up Central Casting and asked for "a pilot type"—named an airline, he wasn't nearly as picky. Morris Air, the business he began with partner June Morris out of Salt Lake City, was so successful that Southwest Airlines bought it in 1993 and made Neeleman sign a five-year non-compete agreement. As soon as the clause expired, Neeleman started pursuing plans for "New Air," the working title for a budget airline to fly out of JFK and serve cities as far west as Salt Lake City and as far north as Portland, Maine. Between financier George Soros and institutions such as Chase Capital Partners, Neeleman had all the financing he needed and a contract for up to 82 new A320 jets—but still no name. It wasn't that he lacked suggestions. Everyone chimed in, from Airbus executives to family members, friends, neighbors, even his wife's orthodontist.
It was time to hire professionals. Neeleman had originally hoped to start an American version of Virgin Atlantic Airways, but when negotiations with Richard Branson fell through, he did the next best thing: he signed on Virgin's marketing executives. Having worked at the airline that put the cheek in cheeky, Amy Curtis McIntyre, a native New Yorker and a dead ringer for Annette Bening (pre-Warren), and Gareth Edmondson-Jones, an Australian with a preternaturally sunny disposition and a tendency to say things like "brill" when he means "brilliant," were well suited to mastermind the positioning of a hip new airline.
At first, the "New Air" team wasn't exactly sure what they wanted in a name. But they were pretty sure what they didn't want: geographic descriptions such as Southwest or Northwest, or made-up words like Acela or Acura (a trick more and more companies have found themselves relying on as fewer and fewer real words are available for trademark). Nor did they want their campaign to rely, as most airlines' do, on a promise of self-actualization. "Delta's slogan was 'On top of the world,'" says Curtis, "but how do you possibly deliver that in an airline?" It would be especially important to avoid grandiose claims since JetBlue plans to create a new customer base by flying to underserved cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Burlington, Vermont. The idea is that people who normally don't fly, will—if the cost is low enough. "We're targeting people who are sitting on highways going to weddings, reunions, and funerals," says Curtis. "Flying is no longer a luxury thing you do once a year." There won't even be a business class or first class.
With a marketing team in place, the list-making began in earnest: Imagine Air, Liberty Air, Yes!, The Competition, Home, The High Road, Civilization, Fresh Air, New York Air, Gotham, Taxi, The Big Apple. You name it, they probably thought of it. Ultimately, the decision was Neeleman's, and Curtis hoped he would go with Taxi. Curtis was a New Yorker, it was a New York airline, and Taxi had a New York feel. She envisioned a yellow-and-black Checker-cab motif on the tail of the plane. Jones liked it too. "It had a moxie and a chutzpah to it," he said, musing upon the possibilities for tag lines like "The fair fare." In fact, when Curtis and Jones started shopping the account to ad agencies, Taxi was the name they used. "I thought it was a fait accompli," says Anthony Brescia, the account manager at Merkley Newman Harty, the agency that would eventually land the account.
But taxi is also the verb that describes what airplanes do on a runway, and when the Federal Aviation Administration got wind of the name, it raised an alarm. It didn't help that only half the respondents in Brescia's focus groups associated taxi with the glamorous Checker cabs of New York in the forties; the other half associated the word with the more contemporary experience of an unsafe ride in an unclean cab driven by somebody with an unclear grasp of the English language.
Taxi was dropped. Soon after, Merkley Newman Harty sent over its top three—Blue, It, and Egg—chosen because they were, in the words of Brescia, "contemporary, simple, clean, and memorable." Neeleman liked Blue right away, but everybody agreed the word alone would be impossible to trademark. Egg did not fly (for obvious reasons), so that left It. Curtis and Jones were open to It, envisioning luggage tags that said "Schlep It" and labels on bagels that read "Eat It." But outside the immediate "New Air" family, the reaction was distinctly tepid. As Curtis recalls, the manufacturers at Airbus grimaced at the name: "Big airline," they said, "little word." It may have been Neeleman's wife, however, who put the final nail in the coffin. "It would be a good name for a clothing line," she told her husband. "It's not a name that makes you feel safe." It was dropped.
As the airline approached its announcement date, management began to get nervous. "People are starting to drop the quotes around 'New Air,' " fretted Jones. Out of desperation, they turned to Landor Associates. A division of the Young & Rubicam ad agency, Landor seems to have had its finger in every company you've ever heard of—Microsoft, Pepsi, Xerox, Frito-Lay, and a handful of airlines including British Airways, Alitalia, Delta, and Northwest—yet you've probably never heard of them. They call themselves a "branding consultancy and design firm" and, on their Web site, quote their founder when explaining their job: "Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind." They don't come cheap: "New Air" agreed to pay more than $100,000 for the Landor touch. The move clearly bothered Curtis, though she tried to put her best spin on it. "I would like to think we didn't need them," she said a few weeks before Landor made their presentation, "but after naming this airline four times myself, I realized we needed some arbitration."
Curtis, Neeleman, et al. sent Landor the 200 names they had considered and all the brand-positioning documents they had generated. Then they sat back and waited. On June 14, 2009, top management from "New Air" gathered in Landor's San Francisco headquarters for the presentation of the six finalists. All agreed ahead of time that they would decide that day, one way or another. Before she left for the presentation, Curtis had turned philosophical. "What did yahoo mean before the Internet?" she asked. "Just an idiot. A gap was a space between your teeth; now it's where America shops. Whatever we choose, I know we'll make it work. We could call this airline Idiot Air and I could market it."
The first name Landor suggested was Air Avenues. People liked it okay. It suggested choice and wide, prestigious streets like Park Avenue in New York City, but that was ultimately the problem. The airline was, after all, a budget airline. They passed. Next came Hiway Air, which was almost immediately rejected for being too silly (and one of those made-up words they wanted to avoid). Ditto Air Hop on the silliness charge. Lift Airways had several supporters among the group who liked the emotional, uplifting image of it, but somebody worried that it was too similar to airlift, which suggested an emergency situation. Scout Air was roundly vetoed because it denoted adventure destinations like Alaska and seemed a bit too do-gooder. That left True Blue.
"Everybody sort of went, 'That's it?' " recalls Curtis, who admits she had secretly hoped there would be a name that would blow her away. True Blue did not. "I had a panicked moment," she says, "when I thought Taxi was better, Competition was better. But the people at Landor said, 'Sit with it.' " Eventually, she convinced herself that True Blue was the right name. "The blue has a good visual aspect to it," she explained. "It's the sky, it's friendship, it's loyalty. Some people questioned whether New York could handle something so sweet, but we figured we'd lowercase it to make it more modern and play up the retro aspect." In the end, the vote was unanimous. "New Air" would be True Blue.
Or so they thought.
Just two weeks before the scheduled announcement, disaster struck. Thrifty Rent-A-Car already owned True Blue for an internal customer service initiative. Landor should have known, but their usual legal counsel had been unavailable and they had used another firm. Neeleman balked at paying the full fee, and Landor halved the bill. Was Curtis irritated? "That's one word for it," she answers diplomatically, but then places the true marketer's spin on a situation: "In our journey, it was a necessary diversion." Thrifty was willing to negotiate, but the prospect of fighting for the name forced Neeleman to admit his own ambivalence. The truth was, he liked Blue but he never loved True Blue. It seemed too much like a boast.
One Friday night, only a week and a half before the press conference, Neeleman, Curtis, and the general counsel for the airline were on the phone once again discussing a name for the airline when Curtis, who was about to be late for dinner with her in-laws, threw out the name "Jet Blue." "At first," Neeleman says of the moment, "I thought jet black. But then I felt that click. Jet made it sound real, like it wasn't a puddle jumper, and the blue had that association with the wild blue yonder." JetBlue. Finally, the airline had a name—and Curtis wasn't even late for dinner.
Rebecca Johnson is a contributing editor for Vogue.