We fly in and out of the New York area quite a bit for client work. In fact, we had an office in NYC for about seven years that I managed from Charlotte, resulting in many hours in Newark, La Guardia, and JFK. On a recent return trip through Newark’s Liberty International Airport, we sat, reflecting on the day, awaiting our flight home. Out the window were two planes sitting side by side—one with an Alaska Airlines livery, and the other with Virgin America. The merger of the two airlines was completed earlier this year, and the visual reference of them together gave me pause. Have you ever flown on a Virgin America flight? Or Alaska? I must admit my personal experience on Alaska has been limited to a few trips in and out of SeaTac or Portland. But the brand experience of Virgin America is unparalleled for U.S. domestic air travel. The ambient lighting, more spacious seating, monitors in every seat back, the on-demand food, etc. Even the experience at the kiosks and in the terminal are unique, ownable, desirable, and—authentically Virgin.
So how could the best consumer airline brand in the U.S. fail?* And is this just the latest example of the commoditization of air travel in this country, and the devaluation of customer service, comfort, and attention to details for consumers in general? Do consumers no longer care about the romantic aspect of air travel? Have our lives become so self-consumed and busy that we can’t be bothered with the notion of comfort, or taking an hour or three off to “enjoy the flight?” Or perhaps it is strictly an economic decision. You’re on a mission when you fly, and getting there the cheapest way possible is all that matters. Or maybe brand perception just isn’t that important anymore! I’m guessing its some of each, except for the last statement. Statistics show that brand and design-driven companies have overwhelmingly outperformed other companies on the S&P over the last 10 years.
This conundrum has not arrived on our doorstep overnight. The push to take any and all frills, or sense of a brand experience, out of domestic flight has been escalating for years. And the ability to choose has been diminishing simultaneously. But in a time when the “normal” airline brand experience is witnessing a passenger being dragged from his seat by airline representatives, wouldn’t it be nice to settle into a serene brand experience, bathed in soft hues of purple, calming our senses and giving off a feeling of royalty? At least for a little while.
Sir Richard Branson penned an open letter on Virgin’s web site (two actually). The second letter was posted just days after the Alaska-Virgin merger was completed and the news that the Virgin brand would be retired. He lamented that, “When a company goes public, decisions are made that benefit the shareholders. In the best of times, they also benefit consumers. It remains to be seen what will happen now—for travelers—with fewer airlines in the U.S. than ever. Being different and on a mission to truly reinvent an experience for the customer is increasingly rare in this business.”
A few days later in Seattle, when Virgin Atlantic announced it would be taking over the SeaTac to London flight, he was less politically correct. “It’s baffling and sad,” said Branson, “When I sat down with Alaska, I genuinely believed that they would treasure the brand, that they would treasure the people, that they would treasure the product and that they knew what they were buying. And that the last thing they would do would be to rip the heart out of it, which seems effectively like what they decided to do. It just seems such a waste. I wonder what it was that Alaska bought and why did they bother?” He also made it clear to everyone that Alaska Airlines would continue to pay royalties on the Virgin brand under a licensing deal until 2040. Does that make business sense?
Branson has always taken a maverick approach to business. And to brand building. Doing the unexpected, or the unnecessary, with results that elevated and delighted shareholders and customers alike. A “fun and beautiful guest experience”, the Virgin brand was given permission–no insistence—from its leadership to think differently, much like Apple. The notion that all airlines don’t have to be the same was part of their ethos.
Think about where your brand is today. How do you create space between you and your competitors? Is your brand one that consumers look to in order to experience best-in-class? Could it be? In a merger or acquisition, would your brand be worth saving? You may think so, but what is the perception of your brand in the space it occupies? Not with your direct consumers, but with the next layer out? Or the next? Is it clearly the category captain, or just a novelty brand built for a very particular customer? In this age of transparency, how are you handling your brand ecosystem and the culture that it generates? Not all brands are for all people. Based on the purpose of your brand, it should culturally signal the intent of the brand to the audience it wants to attract. Your brand may be attractive to buyers, but it may not fit the buyers’ needs or culture. And there will be a price to pay for that down the road.
Brands exist for a reason. Today, more than ever before, they transparently reflect and communicate the culture that built them, and they attract those of like sensibilities. Life is so much more than mere consumption today. And it should be. There must be meaning and value in the choices we make. It’s less about owning and more about experiencing. The same is true for the brands we consume. Virgin’s purpose is very simple, “changing business for good.” For Virgin, that means:**
- Thinking about the long-term impact of the business decisions that we make today
- Having a clearly articulated, embedded, and measurable purpose in every Virgin business that drives their decisions and fuels their success resulting in positive impacts on customers, people, communities, and the environment
- Embedding our purpose principles and values in all existing and new business investments
- Pioneering systemic change beyond the Virgin Group through Sir Richard Branson’s profile and advocacy as a global business leader and rising to the challenges.
Unfortunately, the ability to transfer a brand’s purpose and the ideals inherent in a legacy brand from one owner to another requires absolute resolve to uphold the meaning and value infused into the brand, and that can be very difficult. The brand is so often guided by the culture, and the culture by the brand. Successful brands are able to constantly and consistently align their business goals with their brand strategy, on a particular trajectory that influences cultural behavior toward that brand—both internally and externally.
I suspect there will be very little left of the real Virgin America brand as we know it once the last liveries are changed out. And I also suspect the travelers for whom the brand was created will be the first to recognize that. Sir Richard Branson already has.