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.

 

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