Virgin turns cheeky in capital war

Richard Branson's London radio station has been riling rivals in a bid to boost audience figures. Meg Carter reports
Tempers are short in London's radio market, where competition is tough, dirty and getting dirtier. With 25 stations serving the capital and more on the way, growth invariably comes from denting a rival's audience. The latest Rajar audience figures due out this Friday are expected to show that London's total radio audience remains static.

The London station Virgin 105.8FM, sister to Richard Branson's national AM flagship, Virgin 1215, last week took the unusual step of openly declaring the launch of radio wars on its fiercest rival, Capital.

"They fired the bullets, we started the battle," says Virgin Radio's chief executive, David Campbell. "For many moons there has been a gentleman's agreement not to bad-mouth other stations. In recent weeks, a number of Capital people have been openly attacking us. Chris Tarrant to [Capital FM programme controller] Pete Simmons. We felt it was time to act - that things had gone too far."

So Virgin came up with a cheeky ruse: to book advertising campaigns on two of its London rivals to encourage their listeners to switch to Virgin. It would be known as The Big Switch, with listeners encouraged to Take the Challenge by trying 15 minutes of Capital then 15 minutes of Virgin to compare the two.

However, there was a problem. As in other media, commercial radio stations are not especially keen on running ads for direct rivals. In fact, most refuse - which they are allowed to do, so long as they treat all other stations the same.

To get around this, Virgin joined forces with a drinks company, Worldwide Beverage Inc, which next month launches a high-energy drink called Hype. Acting on WBI's behalf, a marketing consultant approached the advertising agency Bygraves Bushell Valladares & Sheldon to buy airtime on Capital, Heart 106.2 FM and - to throw the hounds off the scent - on Virgin. The campaign broke early last week on all three stations with a commercial featuring voices chanting a single word: "Hype", followed by an instruction to buy Thursday's London Evening Standard.

The plan had been to reveal who was behind the campaign in a full-page ad in the paper. But Capital was tipped off in advance and hurriedly pulled the spot. Heart quickly followed suit. Unperturbed, Virgin went ahead, publishing an open letter from Branson urging Evening Standard readers "to take the Virgin Challenge" (sponsored by Hype) - a neat twist on one of the key weapons in the notorious Cola wars.

The warm welcome to new listeners includes trips over London in the Virgin helicopter and the chance to win a trip to Branson's Necker Island. But while the boys at Virgin pat themselves on the back and wait for listener requests to roll in, the industry remains decidedly underwhelmed by Branson's latest wheeze.

Capital, for one, eschews any suggestion that it is British Airways to Virgin's, er, Virgin.

"We think it's quite funny, actually," insists Martina King, Capital FM's station director. "And flattering too - that they choose to advertise on our airwaves, where we have just under four million listeners, to get more for themselves."

Virgin's London audience currently stands at 759,000. Don Thompson, sales director at Heart, says: "It's all a bit silly, really. Like submitting a TV commercial which you know can never get shown, and then dining out on the fact that it's been banned."

"A cheap stunt" and "a smokescreen" is how another London station boss describes Virgin's ruse. "With new Rajar figures out this week, how convenient to divert interest elsewhere," he drily observes. "Current market conditions means there's likely to be little excitement to be found in the new listening figures. This, at least, can cause a bit of a splash." Advertising agency sources are curt. One claims that in London Virgin is attracting at least 30 per cent fewer listeners than the advertising industry had hoped.

"Virgin's audience levels in London are quite disappointing," agrees Denise Clarke, head of commercial radio at the ad agency AMV.BBDO. "While it may have been wishful thinking, I think we were all hoping for both Virgin and Heart to attract a lot more listeners to properly give Capital Radio a run for its money. In fact, neither has and Capital remains the dominant force." One side effect has been Virgin's recent attempts to tweak the sound and style of the London station, she adds. "It's sounding younger - definitely more like Capital than I ever thought would be the case."

Campbell insists there is no plan to sound more like its fiercest rival: "We are and will remain to be a 20 to 44s' station." Although he readily admits changes have been introduced in recent weeks to "spice up the station's output". Research showed Londoners associated fun, innovation, creativity and trust as personifications of the Virgin brand, he explains. "But perhaps we were beginning to sound a little stale on air."

So, in the past month the music and programming departments have been restructured under a new head, Trevor White. On-air promotions and pacing have been tarted up, too. Gone is the old promotional promise of "Classic Tracks and Best New Music" - the word "classic" is always a possible turn- off with younger listeners - to be replaced by: "The One and Only Virgin". While sticking rigidly to the format agreed in its radio licence, the new phrase means "whatever you want it to mean", Campbell concedes.

The changes are not a result of falling audiences, he insists. "We've been too safe and too careful - the time has come for more excitement, to take a few more risks." And with the appointment of a new marketing director - a former Capital Radio staffer - who joins the station in the next month, Campbell promises more of the same.

But guerrilla tactics can go awry. "There's a fine line to tread between innocent stunts and dirty tricks," claims a disgruntled insider at the ad agency BBV&S. "We bought the space for Hype in good faith," he says. "This is a business that works largely on trust. We look at worst stupid, at best a bit naive."

Campbell remains unperturbed. Virgin's declaration of war on Capital is - and must remain - light-hearted, he stresses: "The last thing we want is for this to backfire."