Richard Branson’s Virgin is one of the biggest brands in the world – nearly everywhere but the United States. There have been plenty of launches over the years:  Virgin Mobile by all rights could perhaps be considered the most successful.  There has also been Virgin Cola, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Comics and, most recently, Virgin Money.  Someone please let me know if I’ve missed any others. 

Cleverly, most of these come out of Virgin USA, which describes itself as a venture capital organization that looks for and invests in underserviced consumer markets that could be transformed by Virgin’s trademark characteristics of “value for money, good quality, innovation, exceptional customer service, fun and a sense of competitive challenge.”  Goodness knows it does seem to work everywhere else, with 50,000 employees generating $20 billion in top-line revenue each year from Virgin-branded companies. 

Now comes Virgin America, which launched its U.S. service on August 8 and so far, so good.  Like JetBlue, my opinion is that this new airline is trying to focus on what matters to flyers – that is, of the factors they can impact – including attitude, routes, prices, a robust frequent flyer program and decent seating/well-considered planes.  This is not to say that the consumer technology isn’t way cool, because it is.  A superior seatback in-flight entertainment system that offers PPV movies, games and live satellite TV, with high speed Internet access coming next year.  And for the truly lazy such as myself, I can swipe my credit card and order a sandwich without having to raise my arm aaaaall the way up to push that little button.  Plus, the airline hired one of my favorite shops, Anomaly, to do everything from advertising to merchandise to uniforms.  I knock none of it.  As a marketer, I know that this is what branding dreams are made of.   But this business in this country? Yikes.  I’m just skeptical that being “the most geek-friendly airline ever invented” is what will ultimately attract a loyal, long-term audience in the U.S.  We Americans tend to ask for style in our airlines but favor price and routes.  So we’ll see.   

One note on Americans and Virgin America:  we sure gave the company a tough go of it.  The DOT forced the airline to replace its founding CEO, shed most of Branson’s stake and appoint an independent (U.S.) trustee to represent his remaining 25% share and report to federal regulators any loans Branson might make to the U.S. carrier. As usual, Branson kept on going, prompting Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to note that it’d be “tough to think of a company that has done as much to meet our standards for becoming a commercial airline.”  And it took a Brit to do it!

I grew up in an airline family and can remember just about every new launch, crash, failure, strike, pension collapse, and major snow storm since 1979.  It’s a wild business.  But while the runways may be absurdly overcrowded, this sector, like many, could always use a little entrepreneurship to keep folks on their best game.

And for you bloggers out there… click here for some amusing back-and-forth between Fake Steve Jobs and Fake Richard Branson.

One of the great American pastimes in the marketing business these days is trying to deconstruct what makes Apple, well, Apple.  There was a time when Coke, then Nike, was held up to the same envious scrutiny.  Marketers and agencies want to help their companies move closer to whatever these brands have that make them seem a little magical.

Easier said than done, of course, and I was reminded recently of the importance – and pitfalls – of perspective when trying to apply science to such an elusive concept.  In other words, one must be careful when holding a hammer that everything doesn’t end up looking like a nail.

InsideCRM.com, a site that describes itself as providing “in-depth content that sales managers at small, medium and large companies need to choose the right CRM products and services,” recently published an article titled 12 Effective Strategies Apple Uses to Create Loyal Customers.  The list includes proprietary [technology] formats, attractiveness, education sales and “a store just for Apple.” 

With a heavy dose of respect for the deliberately search-optimized nature of such a pithy headline, I would submit that these items made it onto the list not because they’re the most important, but because they’re the ones that would be interesting to sales managers wearing their CRM hats.  Not only that, but InsideCRM.com had to stretch pretty hard to reach 12, given that at least one of the strategies listed – dedicated retail stores – has produced very public failures for other companies (think Warner Bros., Discovery, Gateway, Compaq…).  

Additionally, I think the article confuses strategies and tactics and even misinterprets a few.  Context and audience were the most influential factors in the creation of this list – not whether the items are actually those that create loyalty.

Likewise, one can wander all over the web and see hammer-swinging folks quoting their own nails, respectively, as the reason(s) that Apple is so successful:

brandchannel:  The power of emotion/[Apple’s ability to] create an emotional link with its audience

MacDailyNews: More than anything else, Apple makes superior products

Engadget.com:  The combination of “high tech, good user experience and stylish presentation”

Does anyone think that any one of the above descriptions really define Apple’s success?  No?

That’s because the hard-to-replicate fact of the matter is that Apple is a winner because of all of the above – and more.  Even Steve Jobs is bashful when he, in part, attributes Apple’s success to making the customer experience as satisfying as is the actual product.   What Jobs has done is obsessively build a company that focuses and controls every bit of the value chain, from the first advertising we see for a non-existent product (how does that advertising make you feel?), to the look and feel of the stores, to the staff uniforms and training, to the product packaging, to the styling, production and functionality of the products, to the after-purchase customer service and communications… it’s an entire ecosystem all its own, from beginning to end, that contributes to that simple sensation of “cool,” or excellence, or desirability we all feel about the company.

One note:  there is a single word in this entire article that accounts for Apple’s success, and it’s the reason why most companies cannot replicate it.  That word is “obsession.”  One man’s obsession and control of a company that is still small enough to keep track of all of its affairs and make sure that every bit of that value chain stays in line.  It’s an expensive, 24/7 job (Jobs!) and, by the nature of the beast, becomes harder and harder to master in big, far-flung companies run by professional managers trying to cut costs and manage multiple brands at the same time.

Ok, maybe one last note:  don’t feel bad.  Even if there was another Steve Jobs out there, part of Apple’s success is the indescribable result of mixing all of these elements together, folding in the boomers, Xers and Yers, layering on the competitive landscape just as it is, at just the right moment in our history… in other words:  magic. 
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