What shall we listen to now?

Virgin's latest wheeze is to tell selected social groups exactly what music they ought to like. What does Richard Branson think he's up to now? Meg Carter reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Don't know which video to watch, game to play or CD to buy? Don't worry, there's a man who does, and his name is Richard Branson. The latest marketing device from the Virgin empire aims to sell target groups an entertainment package tailored to their tastes. If you are thirtysomething, over-worked and stressed, then relax with Simply Red, the Beatles or George Michael. A twentysomething married mum too busy to shop for yourself? How about a little Paul Weller or REM, instead? And gay men, your musical worries are over: Richard Branson knows that what you need is Madonna's Immaculate Collection and The Best of Sade.

The idea of having our taste in music, books and film dictated to us according to our sexual preference and whether or not we have children might seem faintly ludicrous, but Branson and Virgin know, perhaps better than most, the importance of understanding their customers: who we are, how we live and what we want. Virgin is built on providing a growing portfolio of products and services to the "Virgin Generation" - people who bought the records in the Seventies, who flew the airline in the Eighties and who now enjoy an amazing array of financial services (from PEPs to the soon-to-be-launched credit card), lifestyle accessories (cola, vodka and soon even Virgin jeans) and now a wedding service, Virgin Bride, which will be launched later this year.

Which is the thinking behind Virgin's latest innovation, the "magalogue" - part magazine, part catalogue, a new concept in direct-to-home selling intended to blow the traditional mail order catalogue out of the water. The idea is to target defined groups of consumers and offer pre-selected products according to their supposed lifestyle. So, Virgin has launched Compass aimed at the over-35s; Crash Bang Wallop, offering relevant entertainment products to gay consumers and, from next month, 4 Me, aimed at 25- to 35-year-old women who are married and may have children.

Adhering to the Nineties marketing mantra (that there are three rules to effective selling: "targeting, targeting and targeting"), Virgin has, in fact, reinvented one of Branson's oldest ideas. For it was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies that the founder, then in his late teens, began selling records by mail order above an Oxford Street address that would eventually become his first music store.

But while the "magalogue" may signal a back-to-basics approach, it is also a concept with a very Nineties spin. "We're unlike any other mail order catalogue in that we identify closely defined target markets, research just who they are and what they want and then select the products most applicable to their needs," explains John Hinde, general manager of Virgin Entertainment Direct, a division of Branson' s retail chain, Virgin Our Price.

"We last tried mail order back in the Eighties, when we distributed a catalogue detailing 200,000 entertainment products". Faced with a list that long, it's hardly surprising that few were encouraged to buy. So Virgin's new initiative is all about identifying relevant lifestyles. Products are presented in a stylish magazine format accompanied by editorial features relevant to a particular target market.

If you're a Compass consumer (an AB, upmarket, thirtysomething probably with a job, maybe married) you can read features on George Michael, Antipodean movies and acid jazz, plus comprehensive music reviews to help you decide whether to buy the latest Virgin offerings, including discount CDs such as Tina Turner's Private Dancer or Men & Women by Simply Red. "Welcome to Compass!" reads its opening address. "Because music, literature, technology and fashion is in a permanent state of flux, keeping tabs on who does what to whom, why they do it and what they call it, is increasingly difficult ... What we once wore, listened to and watched as teenagers and young adults has defined our generation and informed our view of the world. But how to keep up with the plot?"

"These are people too busy to browse their local Megastore," says John Hinde. Others have lost track of recent musical events. "According to one man interviewed as part of our research, Compass enabled him to regain his Saturday morning for himself. He just didn't want to flog into town and spend hours selecting a new CD."

In contrast, Crash Bang Wallop will be sent to gay males in their mid- twenties. The first issue sports Madonna on the cover and includes a Bluffer's Guide to Star Trek. A range of clothing, under the banner "Shirt Lifter", is available, along with a selection of CDs, movies and games. Videos on offer include Builder's Mate and the Kama Sutra of Gay Sex.

The third group to be targeted will be 25- to 35-year-old married women who may have children. "Many just don't have the time to shop for themselves. And when they do, they tend to go to the most local shopping centre rather than one where they might necessarily find a Virgin store." Research among this target group is now under way to select the range of music and entertainment products they are most likely to want; the early indications are that U2, Paul Weller and REM are popular.

Virgin plans at least another six "magalogue" lifestyle categories and has its eye on six more. Many of us will recoil at the notion of being identified, profiled and targeted so exactly, but response so far has been good, Hinde insists, thanks largely to detailed market research. In the case of Crash Bang Wallop, Virgin worked closely with the publishers of the Pink Paper to better understand the characteristics of the so-called gay market. Each edition of Crash Bang Wallop will be distributed direct to households from Virgin's own customer database or be sent with other specialist publications.

"It's about making people think 'this really is for me'," Hinde says. "It's about presenting our products in the right context, showing we understand their lifestyle - that's what builds trust."

As ever, Branson's approach is simultaneously at one with - and ahead of - the times. "Niche marketing is definitely on the rise," says Kevin McGurk of branding specialist Identica. "It has become much more like rifle shooting in the Nineties than the old blunderbuss approach." There is a potential danger: "The more specific your product is, the harder it is to move it when market conditions, tastes and fashion change." But by then Branson will be on to his next glorious wheeze.

Right on target: five more schemes that know exactly who they're selling to

HOME IS WHERE THE HARD SELL IS

No, they're not new cars. Maxima, Riva and Vista are a range of Wimpey homes to be launched this autumn. Each has been carefully designed and branded to appeal to a specific target group. Wimpey spokeswoman Bridget Ruffel calls it "lifestyle linking". So, the "Celebration" range for older buyers/empty-nesters includes homes called Garland, Pageant and Fanfare. For the younger family there is "Optima" - models include Ultima and Vista. And for the young trendies? Why "Tempo", of course: it includes homes enticingly named Rio, Jazz and Esprit.

THE PINK DRINK

Allied-Domecq has launched a sweet, mid-strength mixable spirit called Tuaca aimed at the gay market in the United States. The launch follows a range of UK marketing initiatives designed to tap into the so-called "pink pound". Allied recently tested a wholesale distribution network for gay pubs, clubs and bars across the UK, emphasising particular brands - such as Beefeater Gin, Canada Club and Kahlua - which it has identified as being more popular among lesbian and gay drinkers. Even so, it is hedging its bets in the US, where Tuaca has been positioned as a "crossover" product: advertising features images of both gay and straight couples. A decision is yet to be made on whether to launch Tuaca in the UK.

CAT FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Pedigree Petfoods plans to reformulate Whiskas cat food. Why? The better to appeal to the tastebuds of the discerning Nineties cat-owner. Cans of Supermeat, Fine Cuts and Select Cuts are expected to appear on supermarket shelves from the autumn with updated flavours to attract the upmarket human cat food connoisseur. Tastier pet food targeting food snobs is already here thanks to Spiller's Purrfect range, which includes Beef in Rich Gravy Sauce, Salmon and Prawn in Jelly and Rabbit in Game Sauce. "A lot of pets are kept as substitute children," one source source says. "A growing number of upmarket consumers want their 'baby' to have the best."

BRATS ON THE BOX

Britain's first television channel for teenagers, Rapture, launches this autumn. You might think that much of today's TV already caters for this audience but, its backers insist, you would be wrong. "Just because they watch Neighbours, Home & Away and Top of the Pops in significant numbers doesn't mean that's all they want," one of them says. Rapture promises a mix of entertainment, information and educational shows made for and even by the target audience. It's just the latest addition to a growing list of niche broadcasters catering for the specific interests of, amongst others: sports fans, foodies, Christians and ethnic groups (including a yet to be launched channel for Irish expats).

WOMEN BEHIND THE WHEEL

In 1994, Vauxhall aimed its Tigra at female drivers, taking on board research showing that 68 per cent of all car-buying decisions are ultimately made by women. "Normally, cars look aggressive and mean, and research shows women are wary of this, it's a turn-off for them," said Vauxhall design studio chief Friedhelm Engler at the time of launch. "So we came up with some smoother lines and shapes." More recently, women have responded well to adverts for Vauxhall's Corsa, featuring Ruby Wax, and the Nissan Micra's "ask before you borrow it" campaign. And, at the top end of the market, the sports car is no longer the preserve of the male: the British- designed MGF, launched in 1995, was intended principally for the "girl- about-town".

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