What is it with Virgin? Robert Maxwell once explained that he bought companies like alcoholics buy booze - because he just couldn’t say no.

What is it with Virgin? Robert Maxwell once explained that he

bought companies like alcoholics buy booze - because he just couldn’t

say no.

I suspect the same is true of Virgin: that whenever someone comes to him

with an idea for a Virgin brand extension, Richard Branson just can’t

turn it down.

On the face it, however, Virgin’s entry last week into the mobile phone

market, complete with pounds 20 million budget (unusually large by

Virgin’s parsimonious standards) has a certain logic and consistency.

Like most of the other sectors Virgin has entered - travel, PEPs, music

retail, cola, vodka, radio, clothes and so on - the main users of mobile

phones are the young, exactly the group with which the Virgin name has

most resonance. Furthermore, just as in airlines, PEPs and, although I

hardly dare mention it, trains, it is a sector where consumer trust is

at a minimum. Indeed, the term ’confusion marketing’ was invented to

describe the small print and tariff structures of the mobile phone

companies. Last, but not least, it is growing fast. For a brand which

has appointed itself people’s champion, this was too good an opportunity

to miss.

In classic Virgin style, we hear promises of single-tariff pricing

structures, and a range of so-called value-added propositions like free

voicemail, internet access and e-mail.

On this occasion, however, you wonder if it isn’t too late - by about

two years. If any brand can rightfully lay claim to single-handedly

reforming the Spanish practices of the sector it is Orange, with noble

assistance from the likes of Carphone Warehouse.The other major players

have since come into line and consumers now get a much better deal than


Amid the usual sycophantic coverage of the launch it was telling,

therefore, to read a comment by no less an authority than Charles

Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse. ’Every one of the tariffs offered by

Virgin Mobile can be bettered by existing standard tariffs already

available,’ he said, clearly underwhelmed.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out that Virgin’s partner in this deal is

none other than One2One, by far the weakest of the four main players in

the UK market. Sure, there’s the romantic David and Goliath aspect, but

what does it say about Virgin’s proposition or clout if it picks the

runt of the sector with which to do business?

This isn’t the first time that anybody has questioned Virgin’s

brand-stretching potential. Although it has had a few successes - there

is no denying the effect Virgin PEPs and Virgin Atlantic have had on

their sectors - Virgin’s failures tend to be brushed under the carpet.

Assuming the jury is out for now on trains, I can’t believe that

Virgin’s achievements in cola, vodka, clothes or cosmetics have matched

the hype or its own expectations.

Increasingly, Virgin resembles a name in search of an opportunity. Of

course some people will see this as a classic example of the power of

the brand. To me it’s the kind of all-style-and-no-substance exercise

which gives branding a bad name.

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