When the founders of WestJet Airlines launched their discount carrier more than a decade ago, they figured breaking Air Canada's half century of dominance in Canadian skies required some out-of-the-cockpit thinking.
So, they set out to create an airline that was completely foreign to most Canadians. Rather than considering passengers as a means to a profit, they decided to treat them as valued guests. The term "employees" was replaced with the more inclusive "WestJetters." The entire flying experience, for both frequent and not-so-frequent fliers, would become friendly and fun instead of perfunctory and impersonal.
There have been many other vocabulary changes at WestJet. For example, promises replaced policies, executives are called "Big Shots," and acronyms and slang, such as "UM" for unaccompanied minor and "PAX" for passenger, are completely forbidden.
"It was 'PAX in 12B wants a coffee' (at other airlines). Passengers became inanimate objects and that's the way they were getting treated. At our airline, we hope you're treated like a guest," says Don Bell, executive vice-president and co-founder of what is now Canada's No. 2 airline.
"I think the simplest way to put it is we applied some very common sense approaches to piggy back on human nature. We created an environment that embraced people and put people first. That environment was also egalitarian and it became the culture (of WestJet)," notes Bell. "The esprit de corps became one of respect with no delineation between management and the (staff)."
Since not all Canadians were aware of the WestJet modus operandi, the company launched its "owner campaign" in the fall of 2005. The multi-spot advertising campaign showcased heart-warming experiences on WestJet and explained that employees cared a tremendous amount about their jobs because many were also owners in the company.
Indeed, more than 87 percent of WestJetters are shareholders in the airline, taking advantage of an employee share purchase plan which allows them to buy up to 20 percent of their salary each year in company stock, an amount that the company matches dollar for dollar.
"The employee share purchase plan gets you a higher level of commitment. You also get a feeling based on the culture that people genuinely care," says Richard Bartrem, director of brand and communications at WestJet Airlines. "But it's unfair to say WestJetters' commitment comes solely from being an owner. That culture comes from the organization overall and that commitment comes from wanting to do right by the guest."
This feeling was exemplified in one of the ads, as a gentleman gets off the escalator near the baggage carousel and is the only person on the flight who isn't warmly greeted by family or friend. Two WestJet employees see this and promptly go over and give him a hug.
Bell says the campaign was able to incorporate the best parts of WestJet's brand — its employees and its customer service — and tell everybody about it.
"Studies show (employee) owners work harder (than non-shareholder employees). That's the philosophy. People will (have more incentive) to take care of something they have ownership in than something they don't," he says.
Bell notes that the brand awareness is catching on with the public, as research indicates that the current campaign is the company's most successful campaign ever.
"You can't walk down the street while wearing your badge without somebody saying, 'Are you an owner?' That's the first question you get asked," he says.
There's no doubt that the rest of corporate Canada is noticing WestJet's culture. In a study released last fall, Waterstone Human Capital Ltd. and Canadian Business magazine surveyed 107 Canadian business executives. They voted WestJet as the most admired corporate culture in the country in 2005.
Some of the accolades noted the company's "entrepreneurial spirit," "delivering what they promise," and its "winning attitude." In WestJet's jet stream were the likes of Tim Hortons, Starbucks Corp. (Canada), Dell Inc. (Canada) and Canadian Tire Corp.
Ricardo Pilon, professor of airline management and marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, says WestJet successfully positioned itself as the friendly alternative to conventional carriers.
"WestJet has been able to sustain the guerilla actions that are so typical of this industry," he says.
Whether WestJet will continue to be successful remains to be seen. Pilon says that while "fun" can be promoted, few carriers can sustain a brand positioning on this basis. He points to the jokes WestJet employees tell over the intercom to kill time while planes taxi towards the gate.