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An Exploration of Branding, Design and Cultural Trends

Making Connections: Can the Virgin America Brand Be Re-Engineered?

The three of us were squeezed in the very back row. Every time someone went to the bathroom, there was an awkward moment, a bit of a shuffle between flight attendants and passengers, and some polite conversations. But instead of being annoyed and rolling our eyes, we took off our headphones, put our laptops away and asked each other how we got here. Despite the circumstances of that particular moment in time, we were part of a very exclusive group - the recipients of Virgin America flight benefits. When you fly standby for little or no money across the country, a seat in the last row next to the bathroom is better than no seat at all, especially when that airline is Virgin America.

It turned out that we had more in common than just our flight benefits. Like many Virgin America flights, contact information was exchanged and new connections made. Looking back on my experiences with Virgin America, I don’t think the airline has ever just gotten me from point A to B.

For the last five years, I’ve been sporadically on my friend’s Virgin America flight benefits. I’ve experienced the full value of the Virgin America branded experience. I’ve seen the pride that their employees have; the captain introducing himself over the intercom with a genuine smile that you can hear in his voice, those working the check-in counter, rocking out to hip-hop at ungodly hours of the morning and the professionalism of the flight attendants who manage to perform their job with style. I know the company goes above and beyond to hire special people. My friend left a successful career in the film industry where he worked with Chris Pratt, among others, to start a new career at Virgin America. He believed in the vision of the company and I understood through him that the Virgin America culture was not a facade. It is woven into every employee policy, from hiring to internal promotions. Others have chosen to work at Virgin, choosing the airline over jobs at Google or Apple. As is obvious, it doesn’t just attract a certain type of employee but a certain type of customer.

A Connector in the Sky

Through the usage of his benefits, I have met countless interesting people, made connections, actually had some of those rare - holy shit - can’t believe I just sat next to such a cool, likeminded person on a flight - conversations.

"And why didn’t I get his name. Can you please tell me his name?" “NO. That would be illegal.”

I have suggested multiple times to my friend that Virgin’s next in-flight innovation should be a dating service. I’m sure it would be a hit.

Virgin America has been a trailblazer and frankly, an inspiration to the advertising community. Their original safety video transformed the rules of in-flight education - a form of edutainment that brands have adopted since to explain everything from credit card points to their branded apps. Their brand reaches every corner of the experience - from their website to the modern San Francisco hub and of course, the actual in-flight, mood-lit flight. It has set the standard for a cohesive brand experience. The faithful Virgin America customers are willing to pay more, even in a category notorious for price wars and financial difficulties.

Pro-Tip: always keep your eyes peeled for celebrities in the LAX-Virgin terminal.

Virgin was able to make a splash in three of the most prestigious markets - New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been consistently listed as the best airline in travel publications.

Missed Connection

So imagine my dismay when I heard the news. Alaska Airlines vs. JetBlue.

“If Richard Branson has anything to do with this, it will be JetBlue. Virgin has nothing in common with Alaska Airlines.” I debated with my friend.

A few days later, we had our answer. Branson was forbidden to have a say in the sale because of his lack of U.S. citizenship. Virgin fans everywhere began mourning the loss of their gathering place.

Like Virgin America, Alaska Airlines also has a strong customers base. Originally out of Anchorage Alaska, the company is now based in Seattle and has managed to gain a strong presence in the growing market despite major carriers like United, Delta and American.

I’ve lived in Seattle for over a year now after having lived in New York City for eight, with a brief stint in San Francisco. While San Francisco and New York are now growing tech centers, there is no question that the type of thinking that has fueled Seattle is just - different. Seattle is an engineering town through and through with anchoring companies such as Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon. These companies are led by engineers. Rather than a clear, uniting vision, products are paramount. It’s Amazon’s unique algorithm and speed of delivery that keeps you coming back. It’s the ubiquity of Microsoft in institutions that has historically led to their growth. And it’s an element of military precision that has made Boeing the second biggest military contractor. With like attracting like, it becomes very apparent that your average Seahawk, beer-drinking, dog-loving, outdoorsy, Seattle-lite is very different from your average Virgin America customer. In fact, anecdotally, I’ve worked with and met more people from all over the country living in Seattle - from states like Texas, Idaho, Alaska, Montana, than I ever had while living in the coastal-centric, international, New York City. Even geographically, there is a huge difference in where people come from and likely fly to and from between Alaska Airlines and coastal-centric Virgin America.

So Close You Can Feel It

Merriam-Webster defines engineering as:

“The application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people."

But not everything can be measured. There are a set of data points that are so nuanced, so small and so varied that there is no algorithm that can put a number on them, but their collective power is priceless.

A recent article in Fast Company by Liz Funk notes this phenomenon.

“Why is trusting your gut so powerful? Because your gut has been cataloging a whole lot of information for as long as you’ve been alive. "Trusting your gut is trusting the collection of all your subconscious experiences," says Melody Wilding, a licensed therapist and professor of human behavior at Hunter College.”  

Richard Branson and his Virgin team have always understood the value in the immeasurable - curating the tiny little details of each brand touch-point to appeal to their customer's gut. In fact, Branson has put a price on it, as a licensing fee to the Virgin brand that Virgin America has paid year after year, no doubt shaping the success of the airline.

Industry experts have noted that Alaska bought Virgin America in order to get their gates in major airports like JFK, SFO and LAX. Virgin America was put up for sale because it was having trouble competing with bigger carriers, blocked from expanding to other cities beyond these metropolises despite their brand loyalty. Ironically, two very different companies were in the similar predicament.

But does that mean that merging is the right step in competing against bigger carriers? Will Virgin America customers now move to Alaska Airlines or flee to more likeminded carriers like JetBlue? Is Alaska Airlines' logic sound or is it a thinly veiled excuse to squash Virgin as their immediate competition? Could Virgin have survived in the long run on their brand equity while still being blocked expansion into other gates? Obviously the merger brings up more questions than answers.

While I mourn the loss of the Virgin America brand, it begs the question of which side will win - the engineering, almost militant, chess-like moves of the Alaska Airlines’ takeover, or the immeasurable, passionate customer loyalty and near movement that the Virgin America brand has created. There is beauty and power in the abstract, that gut feeling that compels us to make some of the most important decisions in our lives from who we marry to what life-path we take. But the sheer growth of Seattle, fueled by Amazon and other tech companies has proven an increased thirst for useful, practical solutions that give us what we consciously know we want. One can only hope that Alaska Airlines and Virgin America figure out a way to merge these powerful elements. Perhaps the new merger will turn out an expertly engineered, memorable flying experience, where like-minded people can take off their headphones, disengage from their phones and make an impactful connection - because isn’t that really what travel is all about?