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The Virgin brand is synonymous with its ebullient leader, charismatic British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, and its story has been well-documented – not least in Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity.
Branson started out in business at 17 while still at school, launching a student magazine and advisory service. The striking brand name Virgin appeared four years later, in 1970, when Branson began selling music records by post. It was chosen because he and co-founder Nik Powell considered themselves business virgins.
Indeed, Branson’s enthusiasm for business and appetite for taking risks and giving ideas a punt are characteristics that now define the brand, as well as its long-standing positioning as a consumer champion and, often, challenger. Companies bearing the Virgin name now operate in a wealth of sectors, including fitness (Virgin Active), music festivals (VFestival), holidays (Virgin Holidays) and finance (Virgin Money). However, not all these brands are actually part of the Virgin Group, which has a complex structure. It also licenses the brand name to others – for example, Virgin Records is now Virgin EMI Records, owned by Universal Music Group.
While Virgin is undoubtedly one of the strongest brands to ever come out of Britain, the name does not guarantee success and Branson is the first to admit the trail of failures he also leaves in his wake, from Virgin Cola to Virgin Brides. In fact, he tries hard to instil a respect for the value of failures in business as one of the best ways to learn.
Two of the strongest Virgin brands are airline operator Virgin Atlantic, in which the Group holds a 51% stake to Delta Air Lines’ 49%, and Virgin Media. The latter, which offers broadband, TV, mobile and landline services, has been owned by Liberty Global since 2013.
Virgin Atlantic was founded in 1984 and its long-running corporate battle with rival British Airways is now the stuff of business legend, with many a textbook case study detailing BA’s “dirty tricks” campaign against the newbie on the airline scene. (In 1993, after a bitter and protracted libel case, BA apologised and paid damages and costs.)
Virgin Atlantic, specifically its Upper Class business-traveller service, revolutionised the sector by adding a trademark touch of glamour, with perks such limousine pick-up, drive-through check-in and luxury Clubhouses and lounges. This has been reinforced and reflected in its advertising, which is often provocatively edgy – as in the ‘Still red hot’ ad made to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2009, and the Bond-esque ‘Your airline’s either got it or it hasn’t’ from 2011. Consequently, the brand has often attracted interest, boosted by Branson’s insatiable desire for publicity and love of a media stunt. This has led to coverage such as ITV’s three-part, fly-on-the-wall documentary series Virgin Atlantic: Up in the Air, which went behind the scenes in its 30th anniversary year and aired in 2015.
It’s not just in business travel that Virgin Atlantic has challenged, however: in 1992 it launched Premium Economy to cater for the budget-conscious traveller who wants more space to work or relax than the cheapest option allows.
Virgin Media was created in 2007, the result of the union of Virgin Mobile, which had launched in 1998, and the recently merged cable company NTL:Telewest. It was a tricky time for the Virgin Media brand, which reportedly shed 40,000 customers at this point. It launched a business-focused arm, Virgin Media Business, in 2010; this offers tailor-made services to businesses and public-sector organisations.
Liberty Global bought Virgin Media for £15bn in 2013. Shortly after this acquisition, Liberty Global slashed 600 jobs in a bid to make the company more agile and efficient. Nevertheless, the strength of the Virgin brand has boosted the business and undoubtedly helped it become the only real challenge to the might of Sky in the UK. It is currently expanding its ultrafast broadband network through its £3bn Project Lightning programme, which it says will reach 17m premises.
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Erik Varwijk, executive vice-president, commercial, Virgin Atlantic
Kerris Bright, chief marketing officer, Virgin Media