SXSW: How to build an army of brand advocates

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Virgin America's Abby Lunardini discussed how the airline rallied supporters to break into Dallas.
Virgin America's Abby Lunardini discussed how the airline rallied supporters to break into Dallas.

Virgin America, WWF and Change.org discuss advocacy vs. advertising

AUSTIN — Brands need to engage with consumers "intimately," rather than "shouting" at them, if they want to build an army of brand advocates, according to Terry Macko, SVP of marketing and communications for World Wildlife Fund.

Speaking on a panel at SXSW Interactive today about the power of brand advocacy, Macko said consumers, rather than brands, should be the ones "shouting back at us and telling their stories."

The panel, which included Abby Lunardini, vice president of brand marketing and communications at Virgin America, and Amanda Levy, vice president of business development at the campaigning site Change.org, discussed how brands are employing the tactics of social movements to build brand loyalty. 

"In the past, brands always had big microphones, and we used to be a recipient of their messages," said Levy, "and that has completely flopped on its head."

"Most people want to relate to a brand; engage with a brand; and most important, participate with the future of a brand they love," she said. 

According to Levy, only 20% of companies engage customers in their marketing efforts. "We can’t afford to be in that 80% anymore. Somehow we have to identify rescues, create the systems and operationalize how we  listen to and engage our customers as part of the conversation," she said.

Lunardini discussed how Virgin America, which is a challenger brand with a marketing budget about a fifth of the size of its competitors in the US, leveraged an army of advocates to take on a legal challenge — creating a flight route to Dallas

Virgin America did this by engaging with its frequent flyers, fans on social and Change.org, creating a movement in the city and throwing parties for supporters (during which Virgin founder Richard Branson did his first stage dive). The airline even started marketing fares from Dallas, before it had clearance to do. 

She said brands must act fast and take risks. "Our competitors in Dallas [American Airlines and US Airways] could have crushed us in numbers, but they were too slow." 

She also said it is vital to know your audience; thank supporters along the way; and have fun, which will get people behind a cause. 

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