Like a Virgin. Still like a bank?

Like a Virgin. Still like a bank?

It will be interesting to see how the Virgin brand trickles into the new Northern Rock. The UK’s Chancellor George Osborne said: “The sale of Northern Rock to Virgin Money is an important first step in getting the British taxpayer out of the business of owning banks.” Quite right.

He then threw in “It represents value for money, will increase choice on the High Street for customers, and safeguards jobs in the North East.” Err – not so sure. The Value for money is debatable – Virgin may agree and jobs are indeed saved.

Key will be whether it will be a choice on the High Street. High Street Banking is in need of a boost. It needs to change – but most commentators are demanding the change reverts back to old school, safe, risk averse, boring banking. That is not Virgin.

Virgin will add a bit of fun, of freedom – customer service & easy, simple forms & processes and the like. Certainly, this will be differentiation from some of the dreariness we’ve witnessed since 2008’s collapse. Virgin have secured a big infrastructure, they’ve bought the backbone & the book to bring their upbeat philosophy into play without being niche. Virgin Money’s bank will be about 10% the size of the UK High Street duller offerings. Small enough to be flexible but big enough to make a noise and attract new customers.

They have a chance to test out what will work quickly before rolling out over the whole country – talking to their customers while developing the Virgin version of daily banking. Creating a different brand experience for banks. They will I’m sure take a positive view of lending to smaller entrepreneurial firms that the Bigger Banks are ignoring. That will make them stand out quickly – more than a new facia and interiors that will replace of the Rock.

So good news I hope – the sector needs it. We all do.

Virgin flies to serve whereas BA fly.

Virgin flies to serve whereas BA fly

Brand experience trumps the advertised brand promise, especially for a service brand. However, the promise must address that experience.

Summer is over and the big carrier’s are back chasing the declining business traveller. Virgin and BA taking a glossy 90 second route tugging our emotional coat. Glorious production values, wonderful evocative music, yum!

Same target and same objective. One works for me, one doesn’t – and I’m their target.

Both airlines have been losing their most profitable business customers to CFO mandated lower travel budgets & free Skype video conferencing as well as family holidays going nationally or on budget airlines.

Both focus on their key brand ambassadors…their frontline people. Quite right.

BA has been hurt not only by the downturn, but also by the strikes by cabin staff. This meant quite a few of their Gold Card holders used other airlines on BA routes – and found that the experience was really rather different – especially the important core part of the customer journey – airport to lounge to cabin to airport.

The key difference in the brand experience is when you step off the walkway and into the plane. It doesn’t matter if you turn left or right or go upstairs or not. The experience delivered by the cabin crew. Interestingly, Virgin and BA get this. Kind of.

I’ve flown many times on BA simply to keep my gold card, gold. In 30+ flights in 5 years, I’ve had only one great experience on board (and it was when I was bumped up on a longhaul flight), but many average ones and some soured. The BA people are usually fine, if a little aloof and occasionally officious. I sometimes get a whiff of jobsworth-ness and they can moan within earshot. Hard then to have sympathy over their strikes over loss of perks to younger, lower paid but happier cabin crew.

The Virgin crew I’ve observed are fuelled by a lighter spirit and it shows. There is a whiff of fun in the service that doesn’t feel false.

On any flight, there will be some small incident and how it is handled shapes the overall experience more than anything else. I’ve flown Virgin only occasionally and when my TV screen didn’t work I was moved to another seat instantly (BA didn’t move me on any of the three times it has happened) and when my drink was accidently spilled, I was invited from the back of the plane to the bar upstairs to “dry off”. When it happened upstairs on a BA flight, the crew member dropped a damp cloth in my lap and smiled.

So do their glossy films focus on that key, experience-led, brand promise?

BA focus on their pilots and their heritage. Good men those pilots, always have been. But I don’t interact with BA pilots.  I hear what they say on the tannoy, but it washes over the much travelled me.  They’re not Biggles.  But I haven’t got a problem with BA in terms of their pilots, their heritage or their planes. So the motto is only half relevant to me. To fly.

On the other hand, my experience as delivered by the Virgin cabin crew is reinforced by their new campaign. It’s younger, more fun, more relaxing, great service and even the odd bit of banter.

In truth, the BA tagline fits the Virgin ad better…To fly. To serve.

Great experiences create great advocates and importantly new customers whereas bad experiences can create brand terrorists and then you lose not only those customers but many for whom their recommendations are valued.

As Virgin say, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Well BA, they’ve now got me. I’m letting my BA Gold Card become silver.