Virgin’s new lease of life

The decision by cosmetics chain Virgin Vie to alter its company name to the Virgin Cosmetics Company is the latest in a long line of changes the brand has undergone during its lifetime.

Established in October 1997 with the opening of its flagship London store, the company originally planned 100 shops over the following five years. But changes in focus mean that today there are just ten Virgin Vie outlets.

New stores in Lakeside Thurrock shopping centre, Bromley and Sheffield Meadowhall also opened in October 1997, followed by Bristol and Norwich sites in March last year. The total number of outlets increased to ten, when shops in Newcastle, Brighton and Dublin opened, nine months ago.

Virgin Vie head of communications Gordon Lee says the past 20 months have been “like having a baby. The first year is a learning curve and a bit of a drama, then you start understanding what works for it.”

He adds: “We want to make more people aware of the brand, with the new name providing a clearer definition of it. The changes are not because Virgin Vie has not worked, but to make it clearer to the consumers.”

Products will still carry the Virgin Vie name, though the company is debating whether to replace the existing store fronts with the Virgin Cosmetics Company name.

At present, an in-house design simply uses the traditional Virgin script with the words “cosmetic company” added, in place of a unique logo.

In October 1998 Revolution, which created the original store concept, designed the four new stores in Newcastle, Brighton and Dublin and redesigned the store at Meadowhall. Trademark features associated with the Virgin brand were added to interiors to improve the chain’s exposure to potential customers and “redefine our brand platform”, according to marketing director Ros Simmons. Shop fronts at Oxford Street and Thurrock were also opened up to allow clearer views of the new interiors.

“The refit at Meadowhall included visual images, more points of sale and clearer information and ticketing,” says Lee.

Ratcliffe Fowler Design created a new visual style for the store, including point-of-sale material and display windows. “It was a lot clearer in style, quite classy looking and more product-focused, and the changes worked very well,” Lee adds.

Richard Hyman, chairman of retail analyst Verdict, believes the company’s constant changes and problems stem from its original error in choice of name for the cosmetics chain in 1997.

“Having a name that people were not sure how to pronounce is an immediate barrier. Simplicity and accessibility are required and this has proved to be quite difficult,” he says.

But Hyman admires the company’s “guts to identify what’s not working” with the original store concepts.

“The design and format were stand-offish and off-putting. Stores were a bit untouchable, a bit too perfect and museum-like, and customers were not encouraged to interact with the products.

“But the more recent designs are an enormous improvement and are moving in the right direction. People are now being encouraged to pick up products and get a feel for what’s on offer. In a competitive market you need to be distinctive, which the new format has achieved,” says Hyman.

According to Lee, a shift in overall direction since Vie’s conception nearly two years ago has led to a number of modifications for the organisation. He says: “Retailing has been difficult and we’ve had to assess our propositions.”

Today, the company’s focus is towards increased direct selling. “We have over 3000 independent consultants doing skin-care and colour classes at people’s homes for themselves and their friends, and are recruiting an additional 50 consultants each week as part of a big expansion in direct selling,” he adds.

Consumers can also purchase products through the Virgin Vie catalogue, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The 41-page publication outlines each of the cosmetic ranges.

The organisation’s newest venture is in association with Virgin’s latest addition – Virgin Active. The new gym and fitness concept, designed by Clinic, will be launched next month in Preston. It will provide Virgin Vie with the location for its first steps into treatments. “We will provide hi-tech skin care, holistic massages, manicures and pedicures using Virgin Vie products,” says Lee.

He adds that there is a “possibility in the future” that the company, which has received a great deal of interest from many countries, may move into foreign markets. “The changes will also give opportunities to have other brands in different markets, both in the UK and abroad.”

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