Only the Virgin brand could lose a rail contract and still smell of roses

August 2012

If Virgin does end up losing the West Coast rail franchise – which seems the likely outcome and despite the current legal attempts by Richard and his team – then you might conclude that this will be highly damaging for the Virgin brand. But the Virgin brand is not like most other brands, and indeed holds an almost unique position and not just in the various sectors it operates in, but more generally within the British psyche. Of course Richard Branson knows this and such an enviable position is still something which needs active management by him and his management team, and hence why he’s been personally appearing on our TV screens to even offer to run the franchise for free for a month or two and until the whole saga is resolved. And what’s more and crucially as far as the brand is concerned, he’s also told us that, in the event of losing his legal battle, he’ll fully accept the decision and move on. 

A measure of the level of respect the man and his brand commands, is the two hundred thousand plus signatures on the online petition, the aims of which were to force the issue to be debated in parliament.  Can you imagine such a public response to any other brand in the UK, or even globally, to even a vaguely similar set of circumstances? No, you can’t, because that’s another measure of the unique position that the Virgin brand enjoys. But anyway and at the slight risk of labouring the point, consider for a moment the public response if, for example, British Airways were to lose a number of key transatlantic routes. Would there be a public outcry and voices of support for Willie Walsh? No there wouldn’t be, and if anything there might be some mild rejoicing.

Having said that the brand’s enviable positioning needs constant management, which it does, what’s more significant is that, and from the outset, what really sits behind the brand is a person and a person we like, relate to and look up to. Or at least the vast majority of us do.  In this respect we’re not talking about a brand which was originally created in a purely strategic and commercial sense and mapped out on a piece of paper (PCs weren’t around then…), but one which is genuine, organic and sincere. Of course since Richard Branson’s first Virgin business started back in the early 1970s, some of the best minds in the world of branding have been masterminding his ever-increasing global business empire. Indeed, in a previous project I carried out with Interbrand – arguably the world’s best and largest branding company – they shared with me their ‘brand platform’ model which they applied to a piece of strategic work for Virgin.  There are three elements to this simple but brilliant model (which I use for some of my clients to this day) which are vision, mission and values. Here’s how it panned out for Virgin…   

  • Vision – To be the people’s champion
  • Mission – Busting cartels and supporting the underdog
  • Values – Fun, entertainment, irreverence, innovation

This model for Virgin was created around 15 years ago, but actually it could have been created 15 years before that and, more significantly, it could have been created yesterday. (Also note that Interbrand didn’t ‘invent’ these things – they were simply articulating them and in the context of their own model.) You’ll be getting the message here anyway – a person who’s stuck with the very things which differentiate his brand and regardless of decade, sector, economic conditions and his businesses’ commercial circumstances.

And that’s why he’s getting the level of public support over the West Coast rail franchise issue, and also why the damage caused if he loses the franchise will largely be to the Virgin business and not to the Virgin brand.

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