Virgin on a loss of brand loyalty


I feel I’ve not really travelled from Euston before. I must have done it before, but the place, the 1970s hateful nastiness that it is, confuses me every time. It also has dreadful traffic flow - it’s continually full of lots of people walking one way, and lots of other people walking another way, in a way that other stations appear to be fairly free from. Anyway, I was there this morning to travel to Birmingham, which is - shock - actually quite a nice place.

My journey there was interesting, since I ended up on a Virgin train for the first time. On jumping on, I recognised it instantly - not because I’ve ever been on a Pendolino, but mainly because it was the internal carriage that I saw, ad nauseam, on the Cumbria rail crash coverage. Which kind of made me a little anxious. I needn’t have been, mind - it was very comfortable indeed.

Delighted to see that on the in-seat audio, I could listen to various BBC Radio presenters - indeed, the live output from Radios 1 to 4 (run, I’m told, by a set of RDS FM receivers). Every type of radio was available to me; except anything from Virgin Radio.

Now, you might excuse this. Virgin Trains (49% owned by Stagecoach) and Virgin Atlantic (49% owned by Singapore Airlines) might sell Virgin Cola (I think wholly-owned by the same company that makes Panda Pops), but it’s under no obligation to do so; similarly, it’s under no obligation to place, in its in-seat audio service, any Virgin Radio (wholly-owned, this hour, by SMG plc).

Similarly, the soon-to-be-axed Virgin Digital music download service (at the time 100% owned by Branson) was free to promote Blueyonder Broadband (at the time 0% owned by Branson) at launch, rather than (at the time, 0% owned too, I think).

Virgin Media (100% owned by Branson) could, and did, promote CD purchases from HMV, rather than Virgin Megastores (then 100% owned by Branson) when it launched. Virgin Atlantic have been free to launch their own (Amex) credit card, rather than go with Virgin Money’s own credit card range. And I’ll lay a bet that corporate mobiles for most Virgin companies aren’t with Virgin Mobile.

Of course, it makes sense for any company to get the best deal possible. And if you’re advertising-funded, of course, take the money wherever you can. But you have to ask yourself whether this lack of brand loyalty - from its own brands - has been the brightest move on Virgin’s part.

The last month or so have seen Virgin Megastores in the USA being bought; and similarly for the loss-making Virgin Megastores in the UK, who’ll lose their name shortly (as well as shutter Virgin Digital) after selling, five years ago, most of their national stores. Virgin Media is apparently up for sale. Virgin Cars, Virgin Brides, Virgin Energy, the Virgin One Account, and many other UK Virgin businesses have long since closed.

However, in spite of shrinking in the UK, Virgin continues to grow outside of it, with Virgin Megastores France (long owned by Lagardere) rebranding Lagardere’s ‘Europe 2′ national French radio station as Virgin Radio France. A similar deal has happened in Italy, where Virgin Radio Italia is on the air imminently if not already. Virgin stations also exist in Thailand - seemingly part-owned by Branson - and Malaysia. Virgin is launching a cross-US airline, to go with its Nigerian operation. Virgin Mobile is in Canada, France, Australia, and many other places.

Virgin prides itself on its Britishness - Union Flags flying high on its planes and its US stores. Curious, then, that soon the most high-profile Virgin brand in the UK will be… its trains.

Mine was delayed 15 minutes, by the way.

Disclosure: I work for the BBC, and used to work for Virgin Radio. I still have £50 to spend at Virgin Megastores on a gift card. I never blog on behalf of my employer. Or past employers.