In my conversation with airline executives, I often emphasize my belief that an airline’s brand is what it does, not what it says it does.  And Virgin America in the US is proving to be very good at delivering their brand promises – that of presenting the customer a new way to fly.

I’ve written in the past that Virgin America  is good at living up to a highly-differentiated brand positioning. Be it Sir Richard Branson or the zingy flight attendants. Be it the smaller-than-usual boarding passes or the in-flight safety video. All elements enforce a strong Virginisque brand personality, and it is this which continues to linger in the customers’ minds long after they leave the plane.

Here’s a true account of a passenger who’s comparing her flights from Boston on Virgin America and Delta, and you can clearly tell why Virgin America is a clear-cut winner – because of their impeccable brand delivery.

I recently had the chance to experience both the new Virgin America and Delta Airlines, on flights to and from Boston to LAX and Boston to Atlanta to New Orleans, respectively. Despite differences in weather conditions, flight times, delays, etc. I have to say I am ecstatic about the future of air travel, and now realize why Delta and other major carriers have found themselves nearing bankruptcy year after year.

I won’t get into specifics about why my Delta experience was so horrid, but I will say, that it’s no wonder why passengers have become increasingly more frustrated with big airlines and have chosen to try out newer, discount airlines. Also, in hindsight, if I had flown to New Orleans on Virgin America, I am positive that I would have had an enjoyable flight, despite any delays.

Like many others, I don’t fly well and tend to get a little anxious during flight. To my complete surprise, Virgin provided the most calming atmosphere while waiting to board and while in flight. Their boarding staff was cool, calm, friendly, and engaging as soon as we entered the gate (after it took only 15 minutes to travel from Beacon Hill through Logan security!!). The boarding process was just as easy as the online seat selection. The flight attendants made all the passengers feel at home, while swanky background music played and dim purple and red lights gleamed as we took their seats-in comfortable spacious leather seats.

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The best part of the flight, which really sets the airline apart from all others–even Jet Blue–is Red, Virgin America’s in flight entertainment. Red kicks off with a witty video about in flight safety, which honestly puts all other hokey seat belt demonstrations to shame. Besides Wi-Fi access, the system offers numerous movies for purchase, TV shows, radio, games (touch screen and controller based), and a make your own playlist option. Furthermore, you can browse and order meals, snacks and beverages right from your seat, delivered promptly by the attentive staff.

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Virgin’s slogan, This is How to Fly, really says it all. I don’t know how we ever expected anything less. Even if Virgin didn’t have such amazing low fares (I flew to LA for only $99 each way!) I would still opt to fly Virgin over another major carrier…now that’s value & brand equity!

So, what do you think? What is it that makes the Virgin America brand so special? What can other airlines learn from this airline that’s creating waves in the US? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

CEO at SimpliFlying
Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco.

Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others.

Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
Shashank Nigam
  • http://unclegerald.blogspot.com Jerry Holtaway

    You might say I ‘cut my teeth’ flying between London and New York (as well as Singapore and Hong Kong) on Virgin Atlantic – the model on which Virgin America and other ‘local’ Virgin airlines are made. Recently while in America I had the pleasure of flying Virgin America and quickly saw the ‘magic’ they have – all delivered as if it cost them nothing more as their prices, as you point out, are incredible!

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @Jerry – You got it absolutely right. It’s the delivery that matters most.

  • http://www.creativebrandmarketing.co.uk Nigel Lamb

    A great story and a great example of a brand in action.

    Having read it though, what do you think when airlines form alliances?

    This happened to me flying from Gatwick to Newark. I booked with Virgin, through their website, but when I got to Gatwick I was actually flying with American Airlines. I wanted to fly with Virgin, because I had heard great things, but was disappointed to find I was actually flying with them.

    How can Airlines manage their brand through such alliances?

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @Nigel: You bring up a good point – brand experience can vary greatly when you fly multiple airlines in an alliance. I’m not sure how you didn’t know in advance that you were flying with AA, because airlines notify you up-front that it’s not their plane you’ll be boarding but a partner’s. People who want to fly with the carrier then try to change their flights to be with the carrier of choice.

      Having said that, I do think brand takes less importance than access to a destination when we talk about alliances. Here’s an article on the topic that you might enjoy: http://simpliflying.com/2008/will-a-bloated-star-alliance-result-in-a-branding-nightmare/

  • http://www.rampcreative.com Rachel

    I agree with you on delivery. Everything about their flight experience is designed from a new perspective. This is how to fly! I discussed it too. http://blog.rampcreative.com/ramp-design-matters-home/2009/1/25/soul-plane.html

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @Rachel: Indeed it’s a different flight experience. And it comes through from the advertisements, which read, “Not all airlines are created equal”.

  • Ronald Kuhlmann

    Unless the rules have changed, successful branding needs to be attached to a sustainable company. Lots of innovative and creative products and services regularly emerge. Those who use the offer may find it far superior to the existing offers but if, as so often happens, the financial performance is lacking, they become just another fond memory of what might have been. The financial performance of Virgin America has recently been revealed to be fairly poor and there is significant unrest amongst its investors–who, should they pull out, will reignite the “ownership” foolishness.

    A brand is only valid for its longevity and unique business models only work when they both please customers and generate profits.

  • Jean Michel Fernand

    Sounds like heaven – mood lighting!!! I remember when United was taking delivery of brand new 777s and Airbuses monthly. First class came with a suite that had all kinds of individual entertainment options. The airline was staffed so that Customer Service representatives were available at the gate and were empowered to solve customer problems on the spot. Coach could have additional legroom (Economy Plus). There were inflight meals in all classes. Catchy videos replaced flight attendant demonstrations of safety announcements. (Remember the Shuttle and TED?) The employees owned the company back then. Then 9/11. $99 one way. Does that sound sustainable? One anecdote does not an analysis make. Virgin America is already under investigation for their actual ownership. Why does this look like a loss leader for Branson to me?

  • Scott Strickland

    I used to do some international travel back in the 1990′s, and I always looked forward to my experience on Virgin traveling from the New York area to the UK or Paris. I travelled business class, which entitled me to a free massage – either in the lounge before take-off, or enroute on the plane. The cabins were always great, even in economy, which I did fly a couple of times.

    By way of comparision, I thought Continental also did a pretty good job with international travel, and that they were a step above British Airways.

  • Suzanne Tulien

    Great question for a great brand!

    Richard Branson gets branding! He built his Virgin empire on core values and lives and breathes them — along with valuing his employees and creating systems that support his brand promise!

    It is amazing how few truly Great Brands there are when we have Virgin as an obvious example!

  • Marcus Osborne

    Hi Shashank
    Building a brand isn’t that complicated but first you have to agree on what a brand is.

    For us a brand is a long-term profitable bond between an offering and a customer. This relationship is based on providing economic, experiential and emotional value to the customer and is based on everyday operational excellence and consistent measurement.

    Yes, I said value to customer! How many airlines can honestly say they offer value to customers? How many airlines can say they offer an unforgettable experience? OK most of them but how many of them can say they offer an unforgettable experience for all the right reasons!!? Most of them are trying to offer us as little as possilble for as much money as possible. Most airlines see passengers as commodities.

    Branson understands that offering economic, experiential and emotional value to customers is critical to building a brand which is why Virgin is so successful. (He also understands the power of PR and knows how to use it).

    Tony Fernandez at Air Asia understands also understands that offering economic, experiential and emotional value to customers is important.

    BA, Singapore Airlines, MAS and Cathay Pacifc used to understand it but have lost their way as they’ve neglected their customers and focused on cutting costs. This will cost them in the long run.

  • Brian Gillard

    I think what sets them apart aside from the fact that they truly care (which is so rare these days), is that they seem to truly live up to their slogan, This is How to Fly. I noticed that all of the amenities probably have to be purchased, but who would mind doing so with all of those cool options and in that type of relaxed environmen

  • Martin Navarrete

    they have extended their unique brand personality to the airline business. their product offering also reflects this – from the superior entertainment system to the uniforms. virgin is a modern brand that understands the needs of today’s consumer.

  • Samir Bains

    Excellent mind space: by adding a sense of fun or cheekiness to everything they do, they have achieved both consistency and character to their brand positioning – and as Martin rightly points out there has been a positive transfer of image to all their brand extensions.

  • David Tait

    Virgin America truly has a great product having taken its lead and brand essence from the mothership at Virgin Atlantic. Great product, consistently delivered by attentive staff, backed up by smart edgy marketing will win every time. I just hope they survive the citizenship issue that looks to be headed to a “hearing on the hill”.

    Shashank, maybe you need to check the smart marketing of (comment # 13) Robert Koveleskie who seems to be hijacking this discussion line to promote his own unrelated services!

  • Cristian Saracco

    PitchTV… See what Branson is doing know to improve Virgin brand experience… http://entrepreneur.virgin.com/index.php

    BTW… Virgin was selected as one of the coolest brands worldwide… http://www.allegro234.net/noticia.asp?vcnoticia=13

  • Minal Cherie Kamlani

    Virgin manages to be democratic and aspirational at the same time. :-)

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  • http://Website Alice

    Thanks for the awesome article. I am now going to fly Virgin America in July!

  • teresabattaglia

    How Can you com' I love the owner of Virgin America -)

    Thanks
    http://www.graphic-design-los-angeles.com

  • teresabattaglia

    How Can you com' I love the owner of Virgin America -)

    Thanks
    http://www.graphic-design-los-angeles.com

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