Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Virgin - image vs substance

No, not virgins, so the dozens or so pervy people who are searching for something about virgins or anything but virgins, and are now disappointed can go here (R18 seriously NSFW and I'm not banned in China). I'm talking about:
Sir Richard Branson, or "Beardie" as Jeremy Clarkson likes to call him, is a great marketing man. He has built a brand image of excitement, innovation, cutting edge and being, somewhat, the outsider - the new guy who likes to shake things up. It started with Virgin Music, but has moved onto broadcasting, airlines, trains and more. My main experiences have been in travel.
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Travelling on a Virgin Trains Pendolino train in first class reminds me of what the Virgin brand is about, image more than substance. The sort of style that leaves dirty teaspoons at the table, the sort of style that means sometimes you can’t get scrambled eggs with the full breakfast because the menu says fried eggs, even though the menu also says scrambled eggs with salmon ("I'll have to check with chef"). Honestly, how hard can i be for a fare that can be as high as £168 one way? Virgin has a whole range of products I have had reason to consume or deal with:
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-Virgin Trains
- Virgin Atlantic Airways
- Virgin media
- Virgin radio
- Virgin mobile
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My problem with the Virgin Group is not that its products are awful, mostly they are not. Sometimes it is outstanding, much of the time it is ok, sometimes it is awful. It is the inconsistency that is annoying. However what particularly irks me is Sir Richard Branson’s play with the media, and how seduced the media is by his antics. He’s very clever, the name, logo and the style and way he gets media attention is pretty clever. For years he played the underdog ticket, and still does. He played it against BA with Virgin Atlantic Airways, little guy against the big former state owned monopoly.
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He has done it more recently with Virgin Media (essentially the former NTL/Telewest cable TV/broadband network here in the UK), moaning about how Sky wanted more money for Virgin Media to keep rebroadcasting content that Sky produced/commissioned/owned the rights to. Branson bleeted about being the consumer’s friend, when anyone who subscribes to Virgin Media must sign a minimum 12 month contract and has no right to use anyone else for national/international calls using the phone service. Virgin Media has lost this battle somewhat, despite slick advertising, Sky has picked up new subscribers by offering broadband as well. Style over substances hasn't really won. Virgin Media's High Definition TV offering is also style over substance, as it only relays some on demand programming and BBC's HD channel. Sky by contrast offers another 9 HD channels and video on demand. Virgin Media in its previous incarnation as NTL had shocking service. Call centres that wouldn’t answer, that weren’t helpful. Cutting off the phone even though you paid your bill because you made calls that went over the “limit” allowed, and meaning you use your mobile to call a call centre that made you wait. The public clearly are not enchanted with Virgin Media more than the previous brand, no wonder there are negotiations to sell Virgin Media.
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Of the Virgin group, Virgin Radio bothers me the least. It’s ok, it’s on AM everywhere outside London (and digital radio, but I haven’t bought one of those yet) and I don’t pay for it. Virgin Records similarly is an outlet, which may or may not have what I want. Nothing special, but nothing wrong with it either. However it is owned by SMG, not Virgin Group (although retains the name/logo etc). Virgin mobile is a slightly different story, only in that the coverage of the network it is reselling in the YK (no, it doesn't have a network of its own not here or elsewhere, it resells T-Mobile's network) is inferior to Vodafone. You might notice that a lot of what Virgin does is not really about being innovative, it resells what others offer. T-Mobile is one, the trains are another (it only leases the trains bought by and financed by a rolling stock company), the cable TV service Virgin Media is, partly, another.
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Virgin Atlantic Airways is something else though. On one side of the ledger are Virgin Clubhouses, outstanding airport lounges, especially the one at Heathrow. You can get massages, haircuts, the works, full cooked meals before you board the plane. On arrivals you can much the same as well. That’s brilliant, though BA does have lounges that offer a lot of the same (and when Terminal 5 opens BA may give Virgin even more a run for its money). Similarly, Virgin Upper Class sits between first and business class in terms of quality, and offers sleeper suits, on board sit down bars and massage therapists on board the plane. If you've tried Air NZ's new business class then you've experienced the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats (Air NZ is using them under licence). Pretty good right? Well…. it would be if the cabin crew were of a consistent standard. Virgin Atlantic clearly has, as one of its selection criteria for cabin crew, age and looks. The vast majority are relatively tall young women who look good in short skirts. While this certainly has appeal to a portion of the City Banker crowd who fly Virgin, in terms of service consistency it doesn’t really work. Virgin Atlantic crew are the spectrum, from very good to moody tarts. The ones that gossip in their regional accents swearing in the galley, and who don’t bother going out of their way to provide service. BA service tends to be more consistently good.
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However, Virgin Atlantic in economy class is pretty dire. On the surface it has a handful of little extras that sound good. The inflight entertainment system, fully interactive is rather impressive, though less so now that virtually every airline outside the USA has it or is installing such systems (it is akin to the Singapore Airlines system, which is hardly a surprise as Singapore Airlines owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic). There are inflight amenity kits for economy class passengers (earplugs, eye masks, toothbrush/toothpaste) which is a nice touch. Finally there is a choice of three mains for meals. This is where substance is lacking.
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The food itself is vile, bland and is rivalled by your average Tesco readymeal. Drinks are served in tiny glasses and you’ll be lucky if the drinks trolley comes round again (I didn’t get wine apparently because I needed to ask for it, so I got no drink). Once the short skirted ones (never seen a male Virgin Atlantic flight attendant, ever!) have done their jobs, they disappear and lurk in the crew quarters (which on the A340 Airbuses appear to be cunningly situated downstairs I think!). So service disappears. Then there is the seat. Virgin Atlantic squeezes lots of seats on its aircraft (all long haul) with a seat pitch of 29-31”. Want to know what that’s like?
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Air NZ on a domestic 737 flight averages as slightly better, imagine that for 12 hours London-Hong Kong. Ryanair manages a similar standard. BA is a little better with a standard 31”, but Singapore Airlines and Air NZ go for 32-34” depending on aircraft type (Singapore gives more room on 777s, but Air NZ gives more on 747s). Virgin Atlantic economy truly is cattle class.
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On a better note, its premium economy on the other hand has just been upgraded to new wider seats with more legroom, and from appearance looks better than Air NZ's. Finally, Virgin Atlantic had an annoying little slogan called “4 engines 4 long haul” to imply that airlines that had twin engined planes for long haul flights were less safe. Utter bollocks of course, because any modern twin engined plane can fly on one engine safely for considerable distances, and have done so across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia for many years.
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Now I come back to Virgin trains. Virgin Trains receive tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers money each year to operate trains on one of the main lines out of London to Birmingham and Manchester. These trains run one of the busiest rail routes in Britain. It is quicker by rail than by air (taking into account airport transfer and check in and luggage pickup times) and by road between those cities. Virgin trains charges up to £168 one way in first class between London and Manchester, and £109 in second class. There is a high proportion of business traffic, which explains why four out of nine carriages are first class. Virgin touts how environmentally friendly it is and all that, but wont invest in more trains without taxpayers coughing up, even though it is faster and charges a not too insignificant fare for the trips.
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Furthermore it regularly fails to provide the complementary refreshments expected in first class (sorry can’t do breakfast today, the skillet is broken or the coating is worn off, or we didn’t load the eggs), and you get nothing in compensation (oops I forgot, you can apply for compensation and the onboard shop attendant refuses to accept the compensation voucher because it doesn’t have the word “Virgin” on it, and just acts like a Soviet era worker denying that it’s his fault). How about the sockets for the laptop power that don’t work, and the response is a shrug that it is a maintenance problem, presumably because Virgin doesn’t check everything to make sure the train is fully functional.
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Branson of course never experiences anything like this when he takes the well publicised trips on his trains. I needn't spend much time wondering why.
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Virgin group have been innovators in some senses, Virgin Atlantic was the very first airline to introduce 180 degree flat reclining seats in business class (albeit it was a clunky recliner that went all the way back in those days), and certainly helped put pressure on BA to do better, and vice versa. However, mostly, Virgin is a sexy brand name that has not much more behind it than the colours and the pazazz of Branson. Virgin Blue some years ago promised domestic flights in New Zealand. This, of course, was media bluster and wont ever happen in my view. Pacific Blue was going to slash prices to and from Australia, and it now prices hardly any differently from anyone else (and frankly, if you pay the same with Qantas, Air NZ or Emirates you can get a better seat, get fed with free drinks and entertainment).
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It’s a shame really. Virgin trains are ok, but nothing special. Virgin Atlantic is pretty good up the front, but with variable service and economy class that really is scum class because of almost criminally tight seating. BA, on balance, is better in most respects. Virgin media could be really good, if it had the flexibility and helpdesk service that was better than the UK standard (which isn’t high). Such a powerful brand, and such mediocrity. It isn't a brand for grownups sadly.
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UPDATE: It appears the Department for Transport has found a more grown up firm to run some of the routes Virgin Trains have been running. I mean, hot meals in first class, free wi-fi. Who'd have thought. Go Arriva!

2 comments:

Uroskin said...

What, no experience with Virgin condoms? You disappoint me!

Anonymous said...

If you take the Virgin logo and turn it slighty to the left so that where the underline and tail of the g form an X,you’ll also notice the V forms a slightly hidden S and the i,r and part of the g form a broken capital E,spelling the word SEX. So you have Sex/Virgin in one word.
Very subliminally clever Mr.Branson.