It's a safe bet that the unabashedly iconoclastic head of the Virgin empire, Richard Branson, will continue to raise eyebrows in 2013, just as he has done in years past. The latest Virgin Atlantic branding campaign, the airline's first in two years, is just the latest example of Branson brashness that's quite out of the ordinary.
In a two-minute commercial that could pass for an X-Men trailer (and which Adweek calls "stylish, fantastical, tongue-in-cheek"), Virgin Atlantic has fun showing how a group of extraordinary children grow up to be extraordinary employees with superhuman abilities at an airline that is "flying in the face of ordinary." The global spot (watch below) will run in 30-, 60-, and 90-minute television commercials, with elements adapted for digital and cinema use, and slyly references the brand's wannabe-superhuman founder.
Mark Roalfe, chairman/executive creative director at ad agency RKCR/Y&R, tells Adweek, "We wanted to bring to life that special spark that makes the people at Virgin different. I think the film really captures that, but with the tongue-in-cheek tone of voice that we've build with Virgin over the last 18 years." Simon Lloyd, director of marketing for Virgin Atlantic, added that the campaign "is a powerful brand proposition and long term platform that will be reflected in all areas of the business from communications and marketing to product and service."
Virgin Atlantic is coupling the ad campaign with material that supports the theme. On the airline's website, employees who are the "real life inspirations behind our latest ad" are highlighted, along with other things that are out of the ordinary, such as Virgin's attention to style. "We see red where others see beige; we go for sassy over standard and pizzazz over plain," reads the descriptive copy accompanying a section about the design of the company's airplane seats and interior and the look of its airport "clubhouses."
Also flying in the face of ordinary was the deal late last year that Virgin's iconoclastic founder struck with U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines. Delta agreed to take a 49 percent stake in Virgin Atlantic, buying the interest held by Singapore Airlines for $360 million. The deal, pending clearance by regulators, will give Delta much-needed access to London's Heathrow airport and Virgin Atlantic a strong entry point into U.S. markets.
The move marks somewhat of an about-face for Virgin, which has mostly steered clear of airline alliances. But airline observers see it as inevitable that independent airlines will partner with others. As transport analyst Douglas McNeill of Charles Stanley Securities told the Guardian, "It's long been acknowledged that the industry would benefit from consolidation. There are simply too many airlines chasing too few passengers."
Virgin Atlantic head Steve Ridgway sees the deal with Delta as a necessary strike against rival British Airways (BA), who two years ago hooked up with American Airlines to grab as much as 60 percent of the transatlantic market. "BA won't be happy about our deal because it means that we will be even more competitive," Ridgway told the London Telegraph."We have always been fierce rivals."
The Virgin Atlantic/Delta alliance sparked speculation about both the Virgin Atlantic brand and Branson's role in it. The Delta brand has a reputation as staid, corporate, and conservative — the antithesis of the Virgin Atlantic persona. So "Is Delta about to get a lot sexier?" John Nicholson pondered at the Huffington Post. He added, "there is a lot of excitement among us frequent travelers and international travel enthusiasts that some of Virgin Atlantic's sexiness will rub off on its new partner and result in a more dapper Delta."
Perhaps even more significant, wrote Nicholson, "the prospect of being able to accrue, redeem and emjoy benefits on Virgin Atlantic makes Delta's frequent flyer program, SkyMiles, and its alliance network, SkyTeam, much more attractive for transatlantic fliers."
Not everyone was so positive, though. Willie Walsh, who heads International Airlines Group (AIG), the parent of British Airways, cast doubt on the Virgin Atlantic brand's ability to remain viable after an investment by Delta. But Branson was having none of it from his nemesis. Following the Delta announcement, he made this typically brash Bransonian remark: "First of all, ignore the press speculation, the British Airways speculation. I'm not going anywhere." Nothing out of the ordinary for the "screw business as usual" rebel billionaire there.