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(Published: 2009-10-25)

I wonder. Is it possible to love a brand without ever really experiencing it? And if you could, would that qualify as a paradox?

I’ve never flown Virgin Atlantic Airlines. I’ve seen their ads and I’m aware of Sir Richard Branson’s antics (as well as his business acumen.) I can say with all sincerity that I love the Virgin brand, and I hope to someday have the opportunity to fly them.

There’s a joke about the airline industry. Q) How do you make a million dollars in the airline business? A) Start with a billion dollars. Despite the recession and soaring fuel costs, Virgin Atlantic reported last May that their pretax profits almost doubled in fiscal 2009. (Now there’s a contradictory business trend.)

Since it was founded 25 years ago, Virgin Atlantic has become Britain’s 2nd largest airline serving the world’s major cities. It’s the quintessential Virgin story with several contradictory elements: the small newcomer taking on the giant and complacent establishment; the people’s champion delivering better service via lower costs; whimsical marketing spotlighting serious competitive advantages. Virgin survives by being different; it thrives on contradiction. When the market zigs, Virgin zags.

I had the opportunity to hear Joe Ferry, Head of Design for Virgin Atlantic Airways, speak at Design Management Institute’s Annual Conference in Boston last week. Joe shared wonderful examples of how the Virgin brand bucks the trends, reframes obstacles into opportunities, manages to give a down-and-dirty business an air of natural glamour, and has a good time doing it. Here are some takeaways from his DMI talk.

Virgin’s Upper Class “Suites” (not seats) have received great praise from passengers and won major design awards. Joe’s team spent 2 years designing the luxury flat beds to capture a feeling of “enclosed openness.” When upright, the suite has its own ottoman, which doubles as a seat for a guest. The seat flips over with the push of a button to become a fully flat bed that is longer and wider than the competition’s. All seats have direct access to the aisle, even the window seats. At Virgin, it’s not “either an aisle or window,” it’s BOTH. It’s not seats, but “suites,” offering “privacy in a social setting.”

When British Airlines opened a spacious state of the art lounge at Heathrow’s newest terminal, Virgin knew it couldn’t compete on size. Instead, the airline listened very carefully to determine what was really important to its customers and found a competitive advantage around the reframe “Speed versus Scale.” Recognizing what a hassle it was for passengers to make their way through security just to get to the lounge, Virgin designed a new check-in process called “Limo to lounge in 10 minutes.” Passengers’ chauffeur-driven limos are met curbside by special attendants, where they are checked in as they arrive and then whisked down a special hallway directly into the fabulously-designed lounge in record time. (Be still my heart.)

Joe also talked about Virgin’s “premium economy” flight experience, and the “strict yet flexible” brand guidelines that allow the brand to be “consistent yet unique.” He even told a story about how the well-designed butter knives had a way of disappearing as customers “accidentally on-purpose” made off with the silverware. Most airlines would have just stopped using the butter knives. Just for fun, Joe’s team decided to engrave the utensils “Finest Stainless STEAL.” (They’re still disappearing, and everyone is happy.)

Yes, it’s love at first flight for me, and I haven’t even left the ground. Even so, I can understand why a UK critic recently noted: “Two similarly priced products are normally the same, but the gap between Virgin and BA is planetary.”

Next stop, Virgin Galactic!

Virgin Atlantic's lovemark

Executive 'suites'

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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