Following the flight path

At a Virgin Atlantic news conference last week, announcing 2000 new jobs and two new American destinations, Richard Branson let slip that the airline is rebranding its entire operation.

Many journalists paid more attention to that little aside than to the original purpose of the news conference.

This isn’t surprising, considering that the Virgin brand has consistently broken new ground since Richard Branson set it up in 1970. And specially when its head of public relations promises “a radically unique and distinctive” brand by the end of the year.

To make matters more interesting still, Virgin Atlantic is designing the livery with a view to applying it also to sister company Virgin Express, the European airline. A decision about this has yet to be announced.

Virgin Atlantic head of public relations Paul Moore confirms London group Start Design has been working on the project as an external consultant to Virgin’s in-house team since January 1998.

“The project will involve a completely new livery, a new identity, new interiors and new above and below-the-line material. It will incorporate the Union Jack in some way, but beyond that we just want to come up with something distinctive,” says Moore.

The design industry has mixed feelings about the project, in particular its plans to play up the British aspect of the brand.

Global competition is undoubtedly hotting up, with smaller national airlines increasing their transatlantic services and the appearance of new alliances, such as One World (see table).

But despite the infamous Virgin Rail service, the Virgin brand still has the people’s trust.

“Virgin Atlantic is a very powerful brand and you tinker with it at your peril. But the planes are tired inside so I’m not surprised to hear they’re refurbishing the interiors. But Virgin must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” says Interbrand Newell and Sorrell managing director Simon Jones.

“I would definitely advise Virgin against playing up its Britishness too much because it would run contrary to the first rule of branding – that it’s not specific to the product. And what is British anyway?” adds Jones.

Jones worked on the controversial British Airways identity that dropped the red, white and blue from the tail fin in favour of varied ethnic designs.

Luxon Carr managing director David Rowson adds: “Virgin will have to very clearly work out whether this [British] approach is driven by a long-term strategy or whether it is a tactical snoop at British Airways. Branson is always on the look-out for a headline-making opportunity”. Rowson has previously worked with Aer Lingus, Iberia and USAir.

Virgin will not reveal how much it plans to play up its Britishness. But it will probably play a big part in the new brand.

Start Design senior graphic designer Martin Muir concedes: “We will celebrate the dynamics of the Virgin Atlantic brand and confirm its heritage as a British airline.”

One consultant, who has worked with Virgin Atlantic in the past, adds: “Anything BA abandons Virgin Atlantic will do.”

The airline added a Union Flag to its fleet livery shortly after BA dropped the British element from its brand. Other spectators think the revamp is far more fundamental than that.

“Virgin has been fantastically successful at exploiting ‘Bransonness’ and the values associated with him. But I think it could look to move away from its quirky, anarchic image into the mainstream. It started with a low-cost equation, but I think it will move from that to offer a real alternative,” says another branding consultant with airline experience.

Luxon Carr’s Rowson agrees the Virgin brand could be looking at a long-term strategy to move away from its “cult” core values. “Virgin could be looking to build the robustness of its brand. With any airline there needs to be a strong element of reassurance and safety,” he says.

Rowson says the Atlantic brand is such a powerful part of the Virgin portfolio that any repositioning exercise could have a knock-on effect for the parent brand as a whole. “Financial services are another major area for Virgin and it too has to have a solid brand. If there is this shift [in the brand’s positioning], it could have repercussions for other Virgin brands that don’t fit in, but then the brand is arguably too stretched and the company could be looking to pull its horns in anyway,” he adds.

“You might also argue that to build a brand of real substance you will need to evolve it away from Richard Branson. He is a tremendous figurehead, but it is dangerous to have an over-reliance on any one person.”

However, Virgin’s Moore is adamant his boss will remain as prominent as ever. “We’re not shifting away from Richard Branson. Most people would love to have a chairman like him, who is so immediately identifiable to the public,” he says.

And this after Moore had to work around the clock to satisfy the media’s interest after Branson’s slip last week.

Virgin Atlantic

The facts

Founded: 1984

Fleet size: 24 planes

Turnover (for the year ending April 1998): 943m

Main competition (from individual airlines):

British Airways (UK)

United Airlines (US)

Continental (US)

American Airlines (US)

Main competition (from global alliances):

One World: British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Canadian Airlines, Quantas, American Airlines

Qualiflyer: TAP Air Portugal, Sabena, Swissair, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Crossair, Tyrolean Lauda Air, Air Littoral

Star Alliance: SAS, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, United Airlines, Air Canada, Varig (and from 28 March: Ansett and Air New Zealand)

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