Robecta Ma leads Cathay Pacific Airways' marketing in the Americas. I sat down with her to talk about how she got started in marketing, what she learned working for Richard Branson, and where she sees marketing in the airline industry going.
How did you get into marketing?
I came out of college really wanting to be in publishing. Previous internships I'd done had been with fashion magazines, so I thought publishing was something I wanted to do. My first job out of college was working with Sports Illustrated. My manager was friends with the VP of Marketing at Virgin America. The airline had not been launched, but I was curious, so I asked about it. Somehow it turned into a real job interview, and sooner or later I became employee 151 as part of the launch. I was curious and willing to learn about airlines in a startup environment, which is a really unique situation. I worked with the most talented, hardworking, dedicated people. Also the opportunity of meeting Richard Branson was exciting; he is so down to earth and so creative. Working for the Virgin brand gives you a license to think differently. That's where I fell in love with marketing.
I took those lessons with me all throughout my career, and into Cathay as well. Our airline is very dedicated and known for our in-flight service, so it's really about truly living what you preach.
What was it like to work with Richard Branson?
I've only had a few encounters with him, but having met him, I think as a leader you have to stay humble. He was one of the most down to earth people I've ever met; you'd never have known he was a billionaire. He was so approachable; there are no egos. Working at Virgin America really fosters a collaborative environment, breaking down silos, and, in marketing, thinking about what haven't we thought about yet. Really the Virgin brand itself, it gives you a license to take risks, so you have to think differently in terms of how to market the brand. Even the airline launch campaign was out of the box.
What has excited you in marketing recently?
I think in terms of content marketing it's definitely interesting, because it really appeals since we aren't promoting a sale, we're engaging with customers in compelling ways. The quiz we're doing to promote our summer deals, it's really inviting the audience to think, where do you want to travel this summer? It's asking the consumers to think a little bit differently. Through content marketing practices, whether through our own channels or through influencers, I think it's a great way to have a very authentic conversation with consumers.
Programmatic is also very intriguing to me. With machine learning we can learn so much more about consumers. At a conference recently, someone gave an example about travelers purchasing luxury goods before they travel. These kinds of insights are fascinating and something we didn't have 10 years ago.
The rise of social media is great for us because it creates a community of travelers to share their emotions, either preparing for, going on, or sharing their memories of a trip. It's empowering them to share their stories, so we can share it with others.
What are the biggest challenges that you think travel marketers are still working on?
I can speak for the airline industry - if you compare it with a startup company or a retail company, they can be very nimble and do things much more quickly than an airline. It's slower, it's a heavily regulated industry, and pricing depends on a few factors, so for us it's not just something where we can make changes quickly. It just takes time, and that's the nature of being in the airline industry. Sometimes as travel marketers we think we know what travelers want, because we live and breathe travel. But often that's not the case. I think as an airline it's about us differentiating ourselves from other competitors. It's not all about the prices, because we all have seats and prices. It's more about the purpose of travel. We really encourage our travelers to think about that.
Our most recent campaign, A Life Well Traveled, invited the community to share what that means to them, and then empowered them to share stories through photos, videos, and writing.
In two to three years, what are some exciting changes you expect see in the airline industry?
I am excited about more of a connected experience. To give you an example, last year we worked with a travel service called LoungeBuddy. We have a great signature lounge, so we did an innovative project with them, placing beacons around the lounge to give consumers a more interactive experience: What food is being served, what's on tap at the bar, what amenities they have. I know from the hotel perspective that's definitely taken off, but from an airline perspective, I think that could be interesting in terms of enhancing the travel experience in the ground and in the air.
Last question - where would you love to go and what's your favorite place to travel to?
I would love to go to Bhutan; I've heard great things about the country. They measured the gross national happiness, so I just find it to be a fascinating place.
I would definitely recommend Peru - visiting Machu Picchu is truly one of the best experiences I've ever had.
Robecta Ma is the Vice President of Marketing, Americas at Cathay Pacific Airways. She has more than 10 years of experience from both brand and agency perspectives.
Cathay Pacific Airways is a client of Jebbit, the company I co-founded.