In the last month I’ve travelled Manchester to London on Virgin twice (4 tedious journeys).  I have a simple thought “Wtf are Virgin doing running a train line?!?”

I was a passenger (purely by accident) on the first EVER Virgin pendolino train between Manchester & London.  As I remember it was a ridiculously early train - 5.50am I think - and apart from the fact that Dickie Branson insisted on waking me up as he personally welcomed passengers at each stop on route (yes, he was there doing his white shiny teeth, woolly jumper, flowing locks, consumer champion PR bit) there was a real sense of Virgin raising the bar.  The trains were a massive step up in terms of design and comfort.  Classic Virgin - we know you’ve been ripped off and we’ve marched in and given you what you’ve deserved all along.  The consumer champion wins again.

Roll on errm perhaps 12 years (?) and my experience has been about as un-Virgin like as I could ever imagine.  I can only describe the experience as drab & underwhelming.  As a brand marketer I’m all eyes and ears for brands living their values and expressing their personality.  In my eyes Virgin is fighting a losing battle to consistently deliver their core proposition and they’ve fallen into the trap of delivering marketing tactics that convince their internal marketing team that they are hitting the bullseye and representing their brand fundamentals whilst the truth is that they’re delivering a personality led pastiche of their brand.

In simple terms it’s the difference between telling a great joke and everyone falling about laughing versus running about shouting “I’m funny me!”

Here’s some examples:

  • On board wi-fi: from the same company that employs Usain Bolt to extol the virtues of their superfast broadband we get a patchy, inconsistent and bloody frustrating wi-fi service.  Worse still staff have no ability or even understanding to address any issues with it.  When I asked leaving Euston if there was a problem with the wi-fi the Train Manager replied with “Don’t know mate, someone in first class was having trouble too so maybe its not working?”  

    Imagine if you called Virgin Media about your broadband and they said “We’ve had a call from one of your neighbours who are also having a problem so maybe its not working?” It’s simply not good enough and whilst I’m not an expert in wi-fi networks I have reference points such as long haul flights now offering wi-fi and I’m left wondering “Why the hell can’t it work on a train?”


  • Toilets: when I go to the toilet on a Virgin train I want three things taken care of: 1) it must be always clean, 2) it must be well stocked and 3) the door lock must work!  What I don’t need as I enter a dirty toilet is a whacky voice delivering a supposedly comedic monologue about “Do not flush anything down the toilet...your hopes and dreams, your boyfriend’s jumper, etc” I also don’t need the mirror to say “Hey there good looking!”  These brand gags are only genuinely funny if every single other aspect of the service proposition is top class.  When I’m wondering whether I’m stood in piss or tap water I don’t get any value from Virgin cracking a naff gag.

  • Approach to delays: When the train is delayed nothing about your Virgin experience changes.  Therefore things rapidly slip out of balance.  If I have a meeting that I’m now late for I quite naturally get frustrated with the service provider getting me there.  What we hear instead is a detailed explanation from staff as to what caused the delay - roughly translated as “Nothing to do with us mate - not our fault!”  

    This raises 2 issues for me:

    1) Why are Virgin pitching their brand into a sector where some of the most fundamental factors that determine their performance are outside of their control and there's a significant history of issues?

    2) Accepting point 1 why don’t they do something that is within their control for when these inevitable delays occur.  Free water?  Free newspapers? £10 off your next journey? Free wi-fi throughout the train? A cuppa?  In essence do something to counter to the reality of the situation.  If this happened I’m much more likely to make my own judgment of “It wasn’t their fault - at least they took care of me”


  • Staff: Is it just me or do the staff seem very much like the staff on all other trains just wearing a different uniform?  Given the absolute opposite appreciation of the role of staff on Virgin airlines this seems to be a massive inconsistency.  I know that working on a train isn’t as glamorous as flying transatlantic but surely a more youthful, vigorous staff well trained to take responsibility to deliver a fantastic service experience would be more in keeping with the Virgin brand?

A final thought: is it the lack of competition on the West Coast line that has revealed Virgin to be just like any other brand?  It’s always easier to push yourself to deliver an amazing proposition and to see the critical importance of having a tight grip on your brand architecture, strategy and execution when you have Emirates or BT breathing down your neck and competing for the same consumer.  When you’re the only train on the tracks then I guess you don’t need to try so hard.

So, if I were in charge? I'd be stripping the marketing right back to the core proposition - be the train company that absolutely champions the consumer experience.  Forget harping on about "Arriving Awesome" that's the consumer recognition that will be delivered if you allow them to travel with excellent fundamentals: fully functioning wi-fi, genuine empathy and care during delays, all basic amenities functioning perfectly and with staff who deliver an exceptional service.  Oh, and of course I'd be removing all of the crap gags immediately. 

I'm never going to get off at London Euston pulling my shades out of my pocket and walking in slo-mo as if I've just arrived at LAX in a Lear jet but I will absolutely become a brand advocate with a positive and appreciative attitude if they get all of the fundamentals right and wrap them up in love and enthusiasm.


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