Media: Strategy Analysis - Hijacking planes to sell Virgin Trains

Brand: Virgin Trains
Clients: Craig Inglis, sales and marketing director; Stephen McDonald,
marketing manager, Virgin Trains
Brief: Ditch the plane ... take the train
Target audience: Domestic flyers
Budget: Tiny

Media: Claire Marker and David Bratt, Manning Gottlieb OMD
Creative: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R
Others: The Works London


Travelling with Virgin Trains is now a better alternative to flying. The Pendolino train has made Virgin Trains the best domestic transport option for consumers across the West Coast network, with faster trains, a more frequent service, and a great onboard experience. Being true Virgins, Manning Gottlieb OMD felt it was its duty to convince domestic plane travellers to swap the pain of plane travel for the joys of train travel.

Travel behaviour is habitual, making the task of converting flyers to the train a huge challenge. Hardened, loyal flyers are set in their ways, and MG OMD needed to disrupt this behaviour, reach them at the most relevant moment possible and present the evidence. Humour and surprise were identified as key drivers that would force this reappraisal.

The client tasked the agencies to take a tiny budget and go up against - and hopefully incur the wrath of - domestic airlines. MG OMD worked with Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R to bring to life a scenario inspired by the film The Thomas Crown Affair. Business travellers would be surrounded not by men in bowler hats but by Virgin ambassadors carrying an anti-air message.


Alongside OMD Fuse, OMD's sponsorship and content division, MG OMD booked four teams of ten actors on to British Airways and bmi flights from Manchester to London. At relevant moments during the journey, the actors used printed T-shirts to expose the inferior plane experience and praise the benefits of Virgin Trains.

The beauty of this idea was the simplicity. T-shirt messages were tailored to particular moments during the journey, highlighting common flying frustrations. All of a sudden, a business traveller would notice several of the actors and mess-ages clustered together. "Don't stand for it" appeared at check-in, "bored or boarding" in departures, and "land in the city centre" at taxi ranks.

On board the plane, a chef (with chef's hat) promoted "superior breakfasts on Virgin Trains". When drinks were served, a very tall person encouraged travellers to "stretch your legs on Virgin Trains", and a very small person announced "shorter journey times on Virgin Trains". The chef even bid travellers goodbye as he stood by the exit at the end of the flight, much to the chagrin of the cabin crew, who had to keep on smiling.


This was a cheeky stunt, designed to make travellers laugh while engaging them with the message. By targeting domestic flyers during the course of their journey, MG OMD was able to place the message where it mattered most. The airlines' reactions only added fuel to the fire. BA and bmi were forced to issue a press release defending their dignity and service.

The stunt was witnessed by 500 flyers first-hand, but its impact extended way beyond this. BA rose brilliantly to the bait and flew off the handle. Its consternation was reported in four national newspapers. MG OMD ensured trusted journalists and photographers were in the arrivals area at Heathrow to witness the end result, which meant that the activity lived on beyond the event itself. The stunt also generated publicity across online news services and marketing journals.

THE VERDICT - Iain Jacob chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Starcom

This is not big, but it is clever and funny.

You can always tell a good strategy - it never needs explaining. Here is an example of a stunt that is bang on what the company stands for. It doesn't try too hard, it doesn't ask you to text or e-mail, it just makes you smile - and think. It is human, and as a more regular traveller than most, I tell you it strikes a chord.

Of course, you can't do the same thing twice - but that's the point and its great strength. The fact that Virgin has such a clear and powerful positioning means that there is a natural stream of good ideas about how to market its services.

Small this may be, but it is advertising firmly rooted in what the company stands for, rather than an uncomfortable add-on. In most companies, you can just imagine what sort of process you would have to go through to get this done. Imagine the questions. Where is the business case? What is the return on investment? What do legal say?But we all know that for very little investment, this idea will have absolutely reinforced everything that Virgin stands for and paid for itself a dozen times over by having the brand talked about.

So it may be small, but damn, it works hard, and actually it raises a much bigger issue for all of us.

There is an increasing body of evidence about the close relationship between a brand's word of mouth and its market share. Bain and co have done a great deal of work on the idea of "net promoters" - the number of people that would recommend your brand minus the number of detractors. The quantified relationship between this and market share should make every marketer stop and think.

Now think about this activity and you can quickly see its value. I was asked to write 400 words on this. Of course,I don't need to. I think you get it already in 329. To write more would detract from the simplicity of a really human, powerful idea.

Congratulations to the client and team on their continued bravery.

SCORE: 4 out of 5.