Virgin Atlantic is the second largest longhaul airline in the UK and the third largest European carrier over the North Atlantic. Sir Richard Branson and his story is where the Virgin brand stems from. He plays a critical role in shaping perceptions of the brand, providing consistency, stability and the personal feel that emanates across the Virgin Atlantic experience. The quintessential Virgin story is about how the small newcomer shows up to take on the giant, becoming the people’s champion by introducing better service and value for money for passengers all the while building a reputation for quality and innovative product development.
We recently interviewed Caren Parkinson, Marketing Manager of Virgin Atlantic South Africa to discover how an airline can market itself in such a way that it strongly stands out from its competitors. This is especially vital when looking at the numerous customer touch points where the positive experience can either be reinforced or fails to deliver on what it promises. Caren comments on how the aviation industry is fast moving, incredibly competitive and extremely volatile. Unexpected global events such as the recent volcanic ash cloud from Iceland can have major consequences on your business. “You have to constantly be on your toes and check your crystal ball to see what may be heading your way”, says Caren.
An important thing to keep in mind is that your customers have to experience a strong sense of connection to your brand and once this happens, they will continue using your product or service on a continuous basis. Caren mentions that part of their strategy is not just to sell tickets, but also to sign people up and develop relationships. “We offer excellent value for money and also a strong frequent flyer programme.” It’s important to remind people what your brand stands for. Virgin Atlantic’s new global campaign has a confident message reaffirming their belief that flying should be a pleasure, not a chore.
The campaign line, “Your Airline’s Either Got It Or It Hasn’t” encourages passengers to compare their flying experiences and asks “does your airline have it”? It represents what makes flying Virgin Atlantic unique, from their complimentary chauffeur drive to moving from curb to clubhouse in under 10 minutes at Heathrow’s Upper Class Wing, to a fully flat bed with your own aisle access. It is equally important to ensure that affiliate brands who play a huge part in customer satisfaction, add value to the whole experience.
Caren mentions how the Private Security Channel at London’s Heathrow T3 for their upper class passengers has helped them to produce award winning service. However, it is not always possible to create a coherent experience at all customer touch points. “An example of this would be the baggage control which is often out of our hands due to the high levels of baggage theft that can be experienced and has happened at O R Tambo in the past.”
“In addition, the global recession has also had an impact on the airline industry. For instance, we took early steps to reduce capacity by 13% and drop unprofitable routes and reduce staff levels by a similar percentage. In the UK, which is obviously our biggest market, we embarked on a major campaign around our 25th anniversary. The ‘25 and still red hot’ initiative was a major success in that market and it was a worthwhile risk to not cut back on spend when a number of our competitors were reducing their sales and marketing budgets. We have changed the way we work this year and have globalised our creative work – which ensures a consistent message to consumers around the world.”
In a services marketing industry, it is vital for staff to offer friendly service and receive training that will empower them to do this to the best of their ability. “In order for our staff to keep the brand alive, we ensure it is embedded in everything we do as a business. Open communication and training is key and most recently we have been embarking on a ‘brand-reignite’ with all our staff to introduce our refreshed brand ideas and values. We have around 8,500 employees worldwide encompassing cabin crew, pilots, ground crew, engineering and office based staff.”
As a result, Virgin Atlantic has positioned itself as a fun, upbeat and fair airline and have worked very hard at introducing innovative products. “For example, the trendy salt & pepper sets in upper class were going missing after each flight at an alarming rate. We decided to engrave the wording ‘pinched from Virgin Atlantic’ on the bottom so it becomes a talking point”. Caren points out how the cabin crew have also been shown to be the biggest driver of ‘overall journey experience’ for upper class and premium economy passengers and is the second biggest driver for economy passengers. “On every flight, we ask a number of our passengers to complete a survey document and also have ‘any concerns’ form that is sent to our customer relations department for follow up.”
“It is of utmost importance to constantly challenge the norm and provide travellers with an experience that leaves a lasting impression”. Virgin Atlantic were the first to introduce a premium economy cabin, personal TV screens in all classes, in-flight beauty therapists and an onboard bar. “The added value ‘extras’ are extremely important, especially when you are travelling in business class and operating in a very competitive environment.”
Caren also talks about how Virgin Atlantic’s award winning lounge at Heathrow offers spa treatments for both men and women, a restaurant and deli, cocktail bar, library, playground, pool table, video games and you can even have your hair styled whilst you wait for your flight. So after hearing all that, wouldn’t you choose to fly with Virgin Atlantic?