2010: Virgin Atlantic, Sustaining the Brand Promise: Case Study

Virgin Atlantic, Sustaining the Brand Promise
Virgin Atlantic, Sustaining the Brand Promise

Virgin Atlantic’s distinctive brand voice has seen the once-maverick challenger brand become one of the UK’s favourite airlines.

Key insights

  • A distinctive brand attitude and tone of voice has provided consistency for Virgin Atlantic while at the same time offered the brand the flexibility to behave in a dynamic, multi-faceted way.
  • The sassy Still Red Hot advertising to celebrate its 25th anniversary was one of the most talked-about campaigns of 2009.
  • This approach to communications has consistently fulfilled the three core objectives of keeping the brand top of mind, delivering ‘Virginness’ and giving people a reason to choose the airline over competitors.


Virgin Atlantic is one of the UK’s major airlines, owned 51% by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and 49% by Singapore Airlines. In 2009 Virgin Atlantic celebrated its 25th anniversary with the multi-award winning Still Red Hot campaign. In an industry struggling to
ride out a worldwide global recession, this campaign was dubbed by Richard Branson the best Virgin Atlantic ad ever made.

From a marketing perspective, it marked an important milestone for the brand, not only celebrating 25 years in the business, but almost two decades of consistently disruptive communications. The consistency in Virgin Atlantic communications has come through the cultivation of an inimitable brand voice and iconic visual identity. It is this that has acted as the golden thread uniting communications.

This approach has kept the brand in the public consciousness, imbued it with ‘Virginness’ and helped raise it to its status today as one of the UK’s favourite airlines.

The birth of a true challenger brand

In 2009 Virgin Atlantic celebrated its 25th anniversary in the midst of the global recession with the multi-award winning Still Red Hot campaign. Said by founder Richard Branson to be the best Virgin Atlantic ad ever made, it rapidly acquired iconic status.

From a marketing perspective, it was an important milestone for the brand: not only celebrating 25 years in the business, but almost two decades of consistently disruptive communications. Rather than straight-jacket such an entrepreneurial brand with a rigid communications idea, the consistency in Virgin Atlantic communications came from the cultivation of a distinctive brand voice and stylish visual identity. Whether launching a new route in the network, communicating the onboard experience or taking tactical advantage of a gaff by long-term rival British Airways (BA), this distinctive Virgin Atlantic attitude was fundamental to the communications strategy.

Marketing is only one of many disciplines to have played a part in Virgin Atlantic’s success. But marketing has been crucial to the growth of the business and key to helping the brand claim its rightful place as one of the UK’s favourite brands.

It all began when Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic with a single leased aircraft making its inaugural flight from London Gatwick to Newark Liberty on June 22nd 1984. At the time, the idea that a brand best known for launching Culture Club and the Sex Pistols could be extended to encompass an international airline seemed hardly credible. Against all the odds and to the surprise of many commentators, Branson turned a profit in his first year of operation. With dedication, often in the face of adversity, Virgin Atlantic continued to expand over the next decade.

RKCR and Manning Gottlieb OMD started working with Virgin Atlantic in 1994, just as the economy was sliding into recession and the airline was posting its first operating loss since launch. ln partnership the three organisations developed a communications strategy that helped secure the future of the airline.

Giving voice to a maverick personality

With a route network less than a twentieth the size of BA, Virgin Atlantic was never going to be able to provide a credible alternative for all journeys. But where there was a comparable offer it was critical that Virgin Atlantic emerge as the preferred brand for both business and leisure travellers.

To this end three communications objectives were developed:

  1. Keep the brand in the public consciousness so it would be thought of alongside BA (and therefore get on the consideration list).
  2. Communicate the unique attitude that defines the Virgin Atlantic brand i.e. ‘Virginness’.
  3. Give people, whether flying Upper Class, Premium Economy or Economy, reasons to choose Virgin Atlantic over competitors.

Rather than impose a rigid campaign vehicle on such an innovative and dynamic brand, a distinctive brand voice and iconic look were adopted to act as the golden thread of consistency. This enabled effortless stretch across the wide variety of messages for each cabin, audience, route and channel as well as the ability to respond with ease to tactical opportunities.

The brand voice was modelled on the personality of Virgin’s founder Richard Branson. lf the Virgin Atlantic brand can be said to have attitude, that attitude was his — maverick, challenging, witty and innovative. For nearly 20 years this brand voice has remained consistently fresh and innovative, helping Virgin Atlantic communications rise above and stand out from the competition.

The Still Red Hot 25th anniversary campaign was the very epitome of this attitude and further leveraged the style and glamour long associated with the brand (Figure 1).

Launching the Still Red Hot campaign with 90-second TV spots gave the brand the stature and scale needed to assert the brand’s confidence at a time of economic uncertainty. This was complemented by premium outdoor sites and press titles to deliver the product superiority story. Tried and tested response-driving in the press and on the radio acted as the bedrock to the campaign, ensuring goodwill translated into sales.

Outsmarting the opposition

The Virgin Atlantic attitude was reflected as much in media strategy as creative execution. With a budget less than a third the size of BA, being seen in the company of the big established players was critical to conveying a sense of scale. Occupying environments best known for premium brands added a sense of sophistication and style. Media firsts, such as front-page colour strips in the early nineties and being the first commercial brand to run podcasts, helped reinforce the innovative nature of the brand.

Capitalising on tactical opportunities also added to the brand’s dynamism and challenger status.

For example:

  • Placing the Upper Class Suite (new flatbeds) outside the BA lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 4.
  • Flying a BA ‘Can’t Get it Up’ blimp above the London Eye.
  • Proactively recruiting BA business flyers during BA strikes.

Surpassing expectations

There is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of Virgin Atlantic communications since 1993. But given the sheer volume of data, turning it into a comprehensive summary is problematic. This is further complicated by the inconsistencies
in sources and measures over such a long period.

Despite this difficulty, results from a variety of sources have been gathered to illustrate the effect of communications against each of the three communications objectives. Particular focus is given to the Still Red Hot campaign.

Meeting objective 1: Keeping the brand in the public consciousness

To secure a brand in people’s thoughts, particularly when a budget is dwarfed by that of the competitors, highly visible communications are needed — campaigns that get talked about. Stunts such as the blimp over the London Eye are examples of activity that generated significant public relations (PR) value in relation to cost.

Tracking evidence over the last 17 years shows Virgin Atlantic communications consistently achieved high levels of cut-through which translated into spontaneous awareness. For example, the first Helen Mirren ‘Legs’ execution in 1994 still achieved 73% spontaneous recall 12 months after airing. There was one occasion when both BA and Virgin Atlantic were targeting the same audience with a similar message about flatbeds. Branded recognition per 100 television rating points (TVRs) for Virgin Atlantic’s ad ‘Beauty Sleep’ was more than double that of BA.

The recent Still Red Hot campaign caused just the splash intended and made sure the headlines were all Virgin Atlantic’s (and for the right reasons) during the crucial January 2009 business period. There was a great deal of positive coverage on the TV in particular, including a feature on the BBC 6 o’clock news, the Chris Moyles show on Radio 1, the Alan Titchmarsh show and Loose Women. Brand buzz increased 11% points in the first two weeks of the campaign.

Looking at the full 17 year period, Virgin Atlantic closed the gap with BA in top-of-mind awareness from 54% Virgin Atlantic versus 87% BA in 1993 to 74% Virgin Atlantic vs 73% BA in 2009 (Figure 3). Communications does not claim sole responsibility for this but there is no doubt it has played a key role.

Meeting objective 2: Delivering’Virginness’

'Virginness’ is defined by the following six attributes: stylish, helpful, up-to-date, dynamic, innovative, fun. Each of these attributes has been shown to correlate with brand preference and is therefore key to ensuring the efficacy of communications.

Since 1993 all six attributes increased significantly relative to BA. Tracking evidence shows this can be attributed directly to communications, with individual campaigns generating significant increases in each of these brand scores (Figure 4).

The Still Red Hot campaign enhanced Virginness even more (which in turn correlates with brand preference).

Meeting objective 3: Giving people reasons to choose Virgin Atlantic

This objective can be measured through increased brand preference over time, corresponding with communications. Between 1993 and 2006 brand preference for Virgin Atlantic relative to BA increased from 49 to 73. This means by 2005 Virgin Atlantic had gained significant ground but still lagged behind its rival.

Tracking evidence from Virgin Atlantic campaigns pointed to significant increases in brand preference after each burst of advertising from 1996-2006. The fact that 54% of people said they would consider Virgin Atlantic in the future, yet only 28% had actually flown with the airline, showed preference had not been solely driven by the onboard experience.

Still Red Hot had a direct impact on preference for the brand among all audiences, finally pushing Virgin Atlantic ahead of BA on the measure for all three traveller groups (Table 1). These unprecedented levels of brand preference coincided with record sales for Virgin Atlantic in a market severely depressed by the global recession. On the 27th January 2009 all records were broken for revenue and bookings on the Virgin Atlantic website. In addition, UK bookings were up 28% year-on-year (YOY) and revenue was up 2.3% YOY, while bookings coming via pay-per-click tripled in the last week of January.

Solid returns

In May 2009 Virgin published a £68 million profit and a bonus handout for all employees just one day after BA publicly admitted to a £401 million operating loss.

Despite the compelling evidence that communications for Virgin Atlantic have been successful at meeting the three key objectives, with such a complex market and so many factors influencing sales, econometric modelling is the only way to isolate and quantify the impact of communications.

The latest Virgin Atlantic econometric models built by BrandScience cover the period from March 2007 to February 2009. While not necessarily representative of the full 17-year case history it is an indicator of the level of return that has been delivered. It is estimated that a total of 184,865 bookings were generated over this time with the following breakdown by cabin class:

  • 125,583 in Economy
  • 19,862 in Premium Economy
  • 39,420 in Upper Class

This equates to a total of £213.64 million in incremental revenue. Based on a total investment in marketing communications of £20.77 million over this same period there was a revenue return of £10.28 for every £1 invested in communications between March 2007 and February 2009.

Looking at the Still Red Hot campaign in isolation, the return on investment was even higher at around £19 revenue for every £1 spent.

There can thus be little doubt that the communications has not only made the sense of ‘Virginness’ surrounding the brand ever stronger, but it has delivered substantial benefits to the company’s performance.

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