I’ve got a confession to make. My grandmother, who I loved dearly, was quite a fan of Mussolini. She was an Italian who emigrated to the UK in the 1930s when Mussolini was seen as “the only benevolent dictator in Europe” (this quote was taken from a 1930s Geography text book printed in England). And the thing she credited him with most was “he made the trains run on time”. This in her mind was a seemingly impossible feat that he achieved.

Which is one of the reasons why when Richard Branson and Virgin stepped into his train ventures I thought to myself if he can make it work then maybe we will all be looking back in our dotage and saying, “that Branson…he made the trains run on time”. And hopefully he could do it without all the downsides of Mussolini.

We all know that with Virgin Trains that he hasn’t been that successful so far and the Virgin brand I think has been tarnished by the bad publicity and bad word of mouth that this business often creates. But overall I am a fan of Virgin. I love Virgin Atlantic and am a devotee to Virgin Media. Even the few trains rides I’ve had on Virgin Trains have been ok.

However yesterday’s Metro made me stop and reconsider the brand given that the hollowed pages of this freesheet contained no more than 7 pages of Virgin adverts.

Firstly there were two Virgin Media placements on consecutive double page spreads one for Broadband and one for Mobile. Functional, response based, well branded:

Then there was an ad for Virgin Holiday’s new lounge at Gatwick:

Then a double page spread for Virgin Trains:
and then finally a promotional offer (run by Metro) for Virgin Balloon Flights:
This leads to all sorts of interesting marketing and brand questions:
1. Can the Virgin brand extend to anything / everything?
2. Aside the logo is there enough clarity on what Virgin stands for?
3. Is there a danger of Virgin overload?
Strangely enough they all sort of work in my mind (and as I admit I like the brand). They are all visually similar and have a similar tone (despite the Balloon one which I think is probably created by Metro rather than Virgin). They all have something of the razzmatazz about them and offer something tangible to the reader – even if it is just price in the case of VirginMedia.
But I do worry about the seemingly infinite extendability of the brand. The brand licensing of Virgin now extends from Money to Wine to Health Insurance to Gyms to Books to Holidays to a Green Fund. Its clearly an opportunistic strategy.
I’d love to see the books for these businesses. My strong suspicion is that the business where the Virgin brand actually adds value – travel, entertainment, maybe even communication – are the business that sit most easily and make, or have the potential to make, the most money. I think there is a strong spirit to the Virgin brand that is about a business built on customer experience.
This spirit is captured in an old Virgin Atlantic commercial which I often play when I talk about brands and marketing – it is a great example of taking a category which used to be all about functional benefits (the BA commercial at the time was talking food/drink and seat pitch) and competing on new emotional dimensions.
Virgin at its best is an experience brand: the limo that picks you up if you fly Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic and has you in the lounge in 10 mins from arriving at the airport; a dedicated lounge for Virgin Holiday customers at Gatwick; being able to choose your hold music when you call VirginMedia; the way they handle complex disclaimers and information when you apply for a credit card. These touchpoints bring the brand to life – can they really apply this endlessly to health cover, the purchasing of wine or books. In those areas where the brand doesn’t provide a unqiue and fun experience they take the opportunity for cross sell but at the risk of tarnishing the brand perception.
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Justin Basini

Entrepreneur, author of Why Should Anyone Buy From YOU?, blogger (www.basini.com), business, brand and marketing thinker and do-er, husband and dad

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