An ideal marketer: Sean Durfy – Gold

Smiling at the sky, not even knowing why.' That lyric by Sean Durfy's favourite band from back home in Newfoundland could have been sung about him when he first migrated from Cornerbrook to Calgary a decade ago.

Smiling at the sky, not even knowing why.’ That lyric by Sean Durfy’s favourite band from back home in Newfoundland could have been sung about him when he first migrated from Cornerbrook to Calgary a decade ago.

But Great Big Sea’s Celtic ditty now needs an update. Fifteen months into his post as EVP of marketing and sales for WestJet Airlines, Durfy knows exactly why he’s smiling upward.

As WestJet celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, the skies over Canada and the United States were fuller than ever of the airline’s sleek, navy-and-seafoam-coloured aircrafts. That’s in large part because of the success Durfy (and his 150-member staff) has had with a new wave of pitch-perfect marketing for the brand, which seems to have persuaded more passengers than ever to choose WestJet.

ROI on ‘Come on Over,’ the first campaign he presided over – whose theme Durfy says was ‘to get people to stop thinking of us as a discount airline’ – was a whopping 35%. But that result actually looked puny when the numbers came in for his second effort. ROI during the September-to-end-of-2005 run for the ‘Owners Campaign’ was a stunning 175%.

Small wonder then, that WestJet’s rating for awareness-of-brand has grown from 51% to 69% over the past year, while top of mind rose from 23% to 33%. Its preferred-airline status soared ten points to 43% during 2005.

And from Winnipeg to the West Coast, the airline’s brand equity is nearly 200 points, compared with what Durfy says is a ‘normative calibre’ of 85-110.

The upstart airline now has captured a 32% share of the Canadian travel market and saw revenue rise last year amid double-digit fuel price hikes and three travel-squelching hurricanes.

‘Until Sean [took over marketing], we had never used the commitment of our employee-owners as a differentiator between ourselves and our competitors,’ says Durfy’s boss and WestJet co-founder and president/CEO Clive Beddoe. ‘He focused on really cementing that brand into people’s minds.’

Ever modest, Durfy, 39, is quick to point out that employee-owned WestJet already possessed a strong brand identity as one of the most user friendly airlines in the history of aviation before he was invited to join its executive team in December 2004, following a much-lauded stint as president and COO of Calgary’s ENMAX Energy Corp.

‘WestJet very cleverly created a classic challenger brand,’ agrees Philippe Garneau, ECD of Toronto’s GWP Brand Engineering. ‘It is now hard-baked into the brand that this airline is going to give its customers a different experience at all the points that matter most – on board, at the gate, throughout.’

Amplifying and extending that message, says Durfy, has been his main contribution to the airline’s rebound from recent financial woes. ‘We’ve mostly just been telling the WestJet story a bit differently than it was told in the past, and to different audiences.’

His first step in doing so, says Rob Guenette, president of Toronto’s Taxi, WestJet’s AOR, was ‘to establish a real partnership with the agency. He invited us to think strategically and to think beyond advertising. And he really pushed everyone to dig deep to understand the core of the WestJet brand.’

Kudos also come from airline analyst Joseph R. D’Cruz, professor at the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. ‘WestJet has had considerable success in creating an image that it offers great service to the customer. And

that is pretty remarkable, given that they are actually a no-frills airline that doesn’t offer the things people normally associate with service, such as free drinks or

nice meals.’

But it’s not all clear skies for the brand. Its online reservations system, which D’Cruz characterizes as ‘the lifeblood of any low-fare airline, especially because of links to Air Miles and other airlines,’ is definitely not up to

snuff. Durfy agrees but says WestJet is concentrating a lot of effort to fix

the problems.

Praise aside, what obviously rings Durfy’s chimes far more are the realities that lurk in the stats and surveys he delights in brandishing – even though he says his colleagues ‘joke about me being Mr. Numbers because I walk around with binders of crap and pieces of paper falling out of my pockets.’

What all his beloved numbers – which are garnered mainly from his research department with assistance from Ipsos-Reid and Léger Marketing – add up to are striking results for WestJet and a strong testament to Durfy’s marketing flair and ability to inspire colleagues to excel.

And the wider industry has noticed: His professional prowess garnered 40% of the votes from 121 senior-level marketers polled across the country to award him strategy’s 2006 Marketer of the Year title.

He accepts the accolade with gratitude, he says, but also with a degree of discomfort ‘because holy Dinah, what really makes companies successful is a collection of good people rowing the boat in the same direction.’

Despite his personal modesty, Durfy is obviously busting his buttons about what all this means for WestJet.

In a single decade, its fleet has grown from a scant three planes to 51 aircraft. Its staff has boomed from 220 to 5,000. Domestic routes have expanded all across Canada, way up from WestJet’s original five destinations of Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

And the trans-border service begun in 2004 now encompasses Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Palm Springs and New York.

By anyone’s count, that adds up to one irrefutable fact: The little airline that could has arrived because so many people want to fly it. And brilliant marketing, from the get-go, as well as during Durfy’s tenure, has accelerated its swift ascension.

Use three adjectives to describe your marketing style.

Team builder, focused leader, and energetic.

What was your career highlight over the past

12 months?

I think the neatest thing to watch is the younger WestJetters who have been in their positions for a few years, have great schooling and are just now being able to voice their opinion more confidently. A prime example was how we decided on the direction of our fall campaign ‘Why do WestJetters care so much – because we are also WestJet owners.’

I was concerned that we had not built enough brand equity in Eastern Canada to make such a campaign believable – and 70% of the media spend was going to be in Ontario – so we had better be sure about the concept. When we went around the table to discuss which concept it would eventually be – Dez [Deseree Kuzek] our advertising co-ordinator made a very strong case for the concept and believed that we would be embraced as a very caring airline. She was so sure [because] of the culture and our ability on the frontline to ‘wow’ our guests…so I said: ‘Let’s go with it.’ We tested it with our blind online panels – and it tested very positively, and as they say the rest is history!!

I think Dez was very pleased with having such valuable input into the process. I think it elevates people’s confidence and they become more valuable players on the team.

We hear so much about WestJet’s ‘internal marketing.’ How can other marketers infuse that sensibility and belief in their own brands?

I have always believed that people are the only truly indispensable assets a company has. And if you take that a step further, people with the right attitude, smarts, common goals and belief system (in our case a belief that we live and die as a company on how we care for our guests) will make up a certain culture in a company.

This culture is the hardest thing that a company can cultivate and the easiest thing that a company can destroy. But when you get the culture right it will be the strongest link in the corporate chain – more important than the strategy of the company (I have had many debates on

this point!)

In our case, our culture drives our brand. So my advice to any organization: Get the right people, develop a culture that embraces those people and your customers, then work like hell never to lose it!

Why do you think you were voted the top marketer? Please don’t be too humble.

You know, I am shocked by the award. I am just a business schmuck – not even a pure Marketing Guy – the real geniuses are guys like my VP marketing – Bob Cummings – now there is a smart, analytical marketing mind who I believe is one of the best in the country!