What is it with the Virgin Brand?

Or “Why it’s easy to pick fault with Virgin Group companies“.

You may have noticed that I’ve recently been airing my opinion – or is it pent-up frustration – on the service that Virgin Trains provides on the UK’s West Coast Mainline out of Euston station in London. I long ago gave up trying to interact with their customer relations department about their failure to deliver either a promised element of their product, or sometimes what should be just their basic service – a comfortable journey from A to B.

It got me thinking about the wider point of why people seem easily dissatisfied with a service, and specifically Virgin Group as a whole, trains, planes, phones, tv, internet access, etc. A couple of quick searches, especially on social media, and it’s easy to find people going full tilt hating on Virgin Trains, dishing out brickbats to Virgin Media about busted broadband, or flying off the handle about the run-down (thankfully soon to be updated) Gatwick fleet on Virgin Atlantic.

The crux I’ve arrived at is that the Virgin brand tends to overpromise through it’s marketing and brand image and therefore sets itself up to underdeliver and disappoint.

Let’s look at the key connotations of the Virgin brand:

  • Differentiated Consumer Products & Services: This is a main area in which Virgin are active, and often entered these markets on the premise of challenging the boring, staid incumbents, with a reputation for poor products and poor customer service, by promising to introduce original ideas and innovations, providing value for money while not taking the customer for granted.
  • Flair and Originality: Virgin companies seem try to approach their business with a different slant to those who have gone before them, to try to be a bit disruptive to the industry, but in a positive way, done with a bit of style.
  • Affordable Luxury: It’s owned by that sweater-wearing millionaire Richard Branson, after all. People think they are buying themselves a little bit of affordable luxury when they buy a Virgin product or service. They expect to be made to feel a little bit special, yes, even when sat in the cheap seats.

I know this is a simplistic view of what is after all a complex brand and an even more complex group of companies, franchisees, joint ventures and licensees, but this is what the average Virgin customer sees and expects.

So, what’s gone awry? What’s made the Great British Public fall out with the bearded chap?

Is it because Branson himself isn’t directly involved in running the various Virgin companies anymore?

While it’s not possible for (nor reasonable to expect) one man to run lots of disparate businesses, the Virgin brand values should direct how the business is run, and how the service is provided. But, does that also require someone with “essence of Branson” to be at the helm of each company and it’s day to day operations, to interpret those brand values into a strategy for that particular business?

Remember that some Virgin companies aren’t owned by Virgin but mere licencees, or are only part owned by Virgin. For instance, while Virgin Atlantic is wholly a subsidiary of Virgin, Virgin Trains is a joint-venture with Stagecoach – the same people who brought you Megabus.

I suspect this impacts the “flair and originality” aspect the most, and the “affordable luxury” the second, because the people leading these companies aren’t necessarily “a Branson”. With no disrespect intended to them, however competent they are, they are more likely a “normal businessperson”, with plenty of experience in that sector.

The other thing to consider is that to convey the Virgin differentiation, the brand is a heavy user of original design, which becomes part of the branding and packaging of the product, the house style. This extends through to serious in-house industrial design work. The issue that I perceive here is that the industrial design has sometimes allowed itself to be overtaken by form over function – how it looks compared to it’s overall fitness for purpose.

On the transport side, one only has to look at why people don’t find Pendolino trains comfortable, the teething troubles Virgin Atlantic had when they introduced the Upper Class Suite product, or the first attempt to redesign the Premium Economy seat in the early 2000’s that yielded a seat which was less comfortable than it’s predecessor, even though it looked a bit space-age.

Consumers set a very high expectation when they buy a product or service from Virgin, and don’t seem to like it when they feel as though they have been taken for a ride or short changed.

This is blown up even further when constructive criticism or genuine complaint is met with outright denial. Here’s a link to one of my favourite articles on a bungled Virgin Atlantic customer service response.

Slightly old now, yes, but it makes a real point, and still relevant as despite recently winning awards, Virgin Atlantic can only score 3.9 out of 10 on this airline review site, and some of the reviews make “interesting” reading.

Having entered many of it’s markets on the premise of shaking up a staid product and being better than the incumbent, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that consumers are grumpy when they find a Virgin company responding in the same dismissive way as their competitors do.

So, having played a key role in being disruptive to the industries they work in, and raising consumer expectation, how does Virgin claw it’s way back, and recapture what it once had? Answers on a postcard to that chap with the beard…

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