Brand of the Week: Virgin's timeless edge
This week I flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time ever. I’m an Englishman in New York so have crossed the pond countless times (with BA, Delta, American, Air Canada and United!), but this was my first time with Virgin. I have no idea why it took so long. They were so cool when I was a kid, as much a part of other people’s Florida holiday stories as rollercoasters and Micky Mouse. So, when I finally booked I was intrigued, and after my pleasurable experience I got thinking…
It’s always difficult for challenger brands to grow old. Often the brand is based on newness, brash youth and a breaking down of the status quo. So, when a challenger brand becomes established it’s easy to lose potency and meaning. But Virgin Atlantic remains a bold, provocative challenger although I’m nearly 40!
They launched in the 80s where stuffy national carriers (British Airways) no longer fit the tone of Reagan’s America. America felt loud, exciting, irreverent and accessible. Virgin brought color and attitude, and it still does today.
As I sat back in my chair, soaring 30,000 feet in the air, I realized that this longevity has been possible because the brand Is built on the humans who make the experience.
The brand’s Values – self-direction, hedonism, and benevolence – are delivered in combination through real, human touchpoints during the actual experience, which makes these values powerful and sticky. It’s not just an idea, it’s something you experience along your journey.
At every touch point there is a distinct Virgin Atlantic tone that feels human, individual and authentic. Achieving that in corporate comms is the easier bit (although not easy). What strikes you when you fly Virgin is that this same tone of voice is also delivered in every interaction with Virgin staff. The way they spoke to me in the plane felt human, never scripted, or robotically learned.
Virgin Atlantic lives Self Direction through their people by enabling it in their staff. Staff are encouraged to be themselves; in how they present, dress and speak. This is an incredible thing for a brand to achieve while remaining professional and polished, and to have done so consistently in an industry like the airline industry, requires training, commitment and trust in their offering.
Virgin Atlantic feels fun and playful, too. There’s an irreverence and joy felt from their colors, lighting, amenities, and lounges, and interaction with staff. This feels tonally perfect for those heading off for two weeks in Florida, but it’s equally appealing to those on business travel, which needn’t be joyless or austere and can often feel so with other airlines. Creating a flying experience that feels indulgent rather than a chore is, again, not easy. It requires tonal skills and the full commitment of the team. Done badly it would be a horrific experience.
The whole Virgin Atlantic experience also feels incredibly welcoming. This comes from the kindness and (it seems) genuine warmth in how the staff engage with you at every stage. Most of us can sniff out disingenuous warmth, especially when you’re stuck in a cabin together for a full 6, draining hours. I suspect that it is also a reflection of how the staff themselves are treated, and the trust put in them from leadership to enact the company values. They’re encouraged to bring their whole self to work, that creates a human and benevolent relationship between them, the company, and passengers. It’s a lesson for all businesses.
So, what does this mean for brands?
Virgin Atlantic continues to stand out in a world where they’re no longer the cheapest, newest or edgiest airline because these values are embedded so deeply within the business. They manifest in the customer experience because of how colleagues are hired and trained (and that’s no easy task).
This recent comms from Lucky Generals brings them to life (through the colleagues) in a way that is distinctly Virgin Atlantic; fun, bold, sexy (and a little bit 80s in a good way!) and acknowledges their lack of interest in sacrificing any of their values for self-direction. It shows us that people need not all act, speak, and look the same to provide a warm and welcoming experience.
There are surely lessons here for other challenger brands, particularly those looking to cut through now. Virgin Atlantic is a lesson in how such brands can become established without ever becoming part of the conformist status quo
How can brand values adapt to changing times to remain relevant and forward thinking as the world changes?
How can I ensure that my brand’s philosophy is not only passed down authentically to the staff, but also the customers?
How can I bring warmth and kindness to my brand that builds trust even before a transaction is made?
From human to human,