Media: Pitch

AN ADVERTISING AGENCY AND A PR FIRM TRY TO STOP VIRGIN TRAINS BEING THE BUTT OF SO MANY JOKES
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The Independent Culture
Bill Jones, Chief Executive, Lexis Public Relations

There is no substitute for running clean trains on time. That would be the best message to be able to communicate to people, rather then some of these weasel words that Virgin, along with the other train operators, are currently using.

The problem is that Richard Branson's got himself into an area that has institutionalised standards - standards which the operators think they ought to achieve rather than what the public thinks they ought to achieve. The two measures of service they seem to use at the moment on their posters are `reliability' and `punctuality'. In April, Virgin allegedly had 85.3 per cent punctuality and 99.6 per cent reliability - but what's in the gap between the two? It's codswallop, really: these are terms that the industry has convinced itself communicate benefits to the public, but don't.

Also on their posters they talk about building on their `excellent' reliability record, but as a communicator, I wouldn't use the word `excellent' in connection with any train service. They've got years before they can use adjectives like that - at the moment they're at base camp. They've got to use words like `trying harder' and `appreciating the problems', and empathise with customers over delays. The trains may turn up, but they're clearly not running on time.

So my advice to Virgin would be to first get a deep understanding of the barriers to running trains on time, and then communicate that understanding internally. I do think internal, or employee, communications are more important than external communication to an extent in this case.

There's no point telling the public that you are running an excellent service, if the public experience of that service is dealing with stroppy ticket collectors, or with people serving refreshments who don't care if they haven't got what you want. That means Virgin Trains needs to inspire everyone who works for them to care about the customer in the way that Virgin has managed to do in its other businesses.

Branson then needs to get his feet under the industry table, particularly with Railtrack, so that the traveller gets the idea that a single train operator's problems are not down to just that train operator. Words on posters like `together with Railtrack we're improving reliability' tell me that Virgin probably has some issues to lay at Railtrack's door, and it's not doing it publicly. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it right now, but once Virgin have got a bit of experience, Branson is going to have to come out and campaign in the media, to take to task the industry that he's trying to become part of.

And he's got to identify what those campaigns should be - it may be a campaign for an overhaul of signalling technology, say. He's already done an interview with Panorama, which I think was an attempt to be open and honest about Virgin's approach to running trains, but he did have to stop at one stage because he didn't really understand all the facts. Once he does, then he can get back on to TV.

Ultimately, it's about saying that there are some issues in the whole business of running trains that nobody has dealt with for years, and that Virgin is going to start trying to tackle some of theseto give the customer a better service.

There is a reservoir of goodwill in this country for Richard Branson, and I'm on his side: I think that if anyone can run a decent train service, it will be him.

Tim Mellors, Creative Director, Mellors Reay PR

PR could initially do a great deal more than advertising here. But more than either of those, Branson could do with actually getting the service right. In the end, you can advertise and PR the hell out of a product, but if it's continually bad, you will lose both custom and kudos. And this is a dangerous thing for Virgin, because it has a good name: one weak link like this could chip away at it. The sad thing is that it is in a similar area - on aeroplanes - that Branson built up a lot of the prestige that he has.

So it occurred to me that he might take a leaf out of the Virgin Airlines' book. One of the best things they did on Virgin Airlines was, when everyone else just showed films, to put MTV or Mr Bean on. You must be able to put TVs on trains - and that would give the service a point of difference. It's part of the image of Virgin to be young and different, and what's disappointing about the trains is that they're no alternative at all. Even their design is very staid, so I think he could get in a good new young designer - to do something a bit more sparse. What he also did on the Upper Class of his airline when he started that was to bring in massage and manicures. Those would be easy things to bring onto trains, and would give the idea he's catering in a different way. Speaking of catering, he could get Yo Sushi, say, to do something too. They've got to give people a reason to travel.

And, once you've got that kind of difference in there, then you can mount an advertising campaign based on it. And people would very quickly accept that, because Branson's got high credibilty. But here, he really does have to do things differently.

It would have to be a sexy campaign. Rail travel, other than Eurostar, is very unsexy, and Virgin could hammer in a nail of difference by being a sexier train service. That's the pitch really - to make it glamorous - because, in truth, rail travel is a very glamorous way of travel, in that you're relaxed and it's an island of calm for a couple of hours. You might do something comparing it to balloon travel - in that it's smooth, and you're in a world of your own, only it's faster.

I wouldn't normally advocate using `the chairman of the company', but I think I would stick Branson in there now, at the centre of a TV campaign. Because there's been so much harm done already, I think it might be reassuring for him to endorse it. My feeling is that he has no presence in this in terms of business, and so it might be advisable for him to do a bit of travelling on those trains and get himself seen, as he used to do on Virgin Airlines. He needs to give people the feeling that when they wrote to him and complained, he would respond.

Branson's the natural hanger for it.

You are made to think that in some magical way he's involved with the Megastores (even though he isn't any more), and that the colas were his idea, but the trains seem to be just an add-on to the empire.

He needs to bring it back very firmly within the Virgin philosophy. It needs to be something that taps into the Bransonness of it, really.

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