A confident, high-profile TV campaign for Virgin Trains has been a
long time coming. The rail operator has soaked up a lot of bad publicity
over the last couple of years, while doggedly attempting to improve the
service and make it worthy of the Virgin brand name.
Last week Rik Mayall came blustering on to our screens as the smug
businessman who makes a fool of himself by insisting he takes the car
’It wasn’t right to go out with a ballsy message because consumers
wouldn’t have believed us,’ Mark Furlong, the commercial director of
Virgin Trains, says. ’We wanted to highlight the negatives of other
modes of transport without being too serious.’
Even though he’s been working at Virgin for nearly a decade, Furlong is
still able to keep a perspective on the company where he has built his
career. He took over the marketing reins at Virgin Trains in February
and still remains healthily detached from the industry.
’Lots of the team here has been around for a long time,’ he says. ’There
are plenty of train enthusiasts and technical experts among them. Coming
from the outside I can think more like a consumer.’
The new campaign, by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, is timed to coincide
with the upturn in business travel after the summer, although it is
hoped it will reach leisure travellers too.
Such a general campaign runs the risk of benefiting other operators.
This doesn’t worry Furlong, who is confident that he is working with the
biggest brand name in the market and knows that Virgin has a very high
level of awareness.
He is well-versed in the statistics of the service. ’Nearly 90 per cent
of our trains run on time,’ he offers. But it is the future, not the
past, which is of real interest - Furlong becomes much more animated
when talking about the tilting trains which will leave London every 15
minutes, travelling at 140 miles per hour, in 2001.
’It’s a challenge to get through the next 18 months,’ he
’We are working with 30-year-old tracks and rolling stock that will go
straight on the scrap heap as soon as we have replacements ready. But in
the UK there is a phenomenal opportunity to review train travel.’
Furlong was marketing director of Eurostar during its difficult start-up
period, when Virgin was part of the consortium that ran it. His first
Virgin experience was with Virgin Atlantic, which he joined at the start
of the decade from a below-the-line shop.
Much of his Virgin career has been spent working on product development
for the group, and he is not expecting to stay with Virgin Trains
For the moment, though, it keeps him and his four-year-old train-mad son
happy: ’It will be a fun job for the next two or three years,’ Furlong