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The top 10 list of storytelling brands in the UK usually includes Apple, Cadbury, IKEA and Walkers.

But looking at the annual list from AESOP, it's Virgin Media that jumps out at me as a storytelling brand that breaks the mould.

Here I round up some of its activity that falls into my nebulous understanding of storytelling.

Let me know if you agree. 

The task 

Telecom and media companies spend an awfully large amount of money on media promoting their services. That’s because there’s big money to be made from each customer and this is a competitive sector. 

Companies such as Virgin and BT face a dilemma when it comes to brand perception and storytelling. These are companies that now sell great content, not just infrastructure, but some parts of their service are still more noticeable when they fail – broadband speeds for example. 

How does a brand tell stories when the product itself can be seen to lack personality? The answer, of course, is through big paid media budgets, but also through smart marketing and plenty of owned and earned content.

The Virgin brand

Of course, one of the strengths of Virgin is the consistency of its brand and its storytelling across the entire portfolio, whether it be media, flight, rail travel or banking (and on). The ability to keep the V and the red branding across diverse products, maintaining a commitment to fun service goes a long way towards the various brands becoming greater than the considerable sum of their parts. 

The contrast with a brand like BT is pretty stark. 

virgin brands

If you take a look at Virgin.com you’ll see that the topics covered are all fairly broad and aren’t filled full of product references – for that, one has to go to the individual brand websites.

This allows Virgin to tackle issues such as business innovation, music and travel, associating itself indelibly with the future of industries that it trades in.

Virgin even runs a ‘Disruptors’ series looking at who and what is changing these industries. Virgin also runs not-for-profit arms e.g. Virgin startup and Virgin unite.

 

Branson

Richard Branson is well known for using social media and blogging. He’s synonymous with Virgin brands to the extent that the first link on the Virgin.com menu is simply ‘Richard’. And of course we all know who Richard is. He’s the biggest Virgin advocate and ambassador and that’s a great lesson for any business leader. His persona is very public and allows him to tell stories in many media.

virgin.com

The Virgin website itself has a timeline, telling the story of Richard’s business interests that quickly become the sprawling Virgin brand.

This timeline is beautifully illustrated and replete with nostalgia.

virgin records

Paid media

The AESOP report details Virgin Media as spending £107m on media in the past year. That’s pretty big and is trumped in the top 100 by only BT (£167m) and a variety of big-hitting consumer goods brands like L’Oreal.

Indeed the Virgin Media brand tells a great story through paid media, memorably through TV ads and online video.

Branson usually plays a part in these ads and figures such as Usain Bolt put the emphasis on speed of connection. The tone of their ads is always personal and light-hearted, part of Branson’s philosophy on business – it has to be involving and fun.

 

But aside from straight up advertising, Virgin Media tells some great stories on line and on screen.

Virgin Media Shorts

This was quite the piece of content marketing combined with storytelling and philanthropy. Partnering with Nikon, Virgin managed to enthuse young filmmakers but also to achieve wide coverage within cinemas and on social media.

The biggest short film competition in the UK ran for six years and served to promote the brand, chiefly, but also specifically its On Demand service (where the films could be watched) and TiVo (an app was created solely to view the competition entries).

This was effectively storytelling used as storytelling.

Virgin Media Pioneers

Launched in September 2011, Pioneers allows young entrepreneurs to share ideas, grow their network and gain experience.

There’s lots of great editorial on the website and it’s all fairly powerful for the brand as young people can voice opinions about various industries under the umbrella of Virgin’s guidance. Sharing expertise on an owned platform can be relatively cheap in the long term, although there obviously needs to be effort made to update content regularly.

This site seems a good way to tap up talent for the future, create goodwill and optimise positive chatter on social from a very vocal demographic.

virgin pioneers

VFestival

The VFestival has been running since 1996 under the sponsorship of Virgin and currently Virgin Media.

This chimes effectively with the music side of Media.

vfestival

#VMGameOn

Virgin Media is currently sponsoring the Commonwealth Games.

There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage over on YouTube. Whilst this content hasn’t had many views, Virign clearly sees the friendly games as an event that fits with its ethos.

Conclusion

In short, Virgin Media tells lots of stories and it does so in many different places, with very little other than service going on at the Virgin Media website. 

The strategy for the brand is all about listening, learning and inspiring good ideas and this fits well with a variety of creative ventures. 

Through smart sponsorship, philanthropy, paid media and social activity, Virgin creates a veritable hurricane of culture. It’s undeniably effective. So much so that you can’t imagine any agency needed to be briefed by Virgin Media for the tone needed within its campaigns, the brand has been doing so much storytelling for so long that it’s a part of the fabric of the service.

See the Econsultancy blog for more on storytelling.

Ben Davis

Published 29 July, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (8)

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Jez WNIP

This is a well-researched and well-written piece, as is always the case with eConsultancy.

However, having been an ad account director on Virgin Atlantic back in the day, and with a sister who was a company secretary and legal counsel for Virgin, we both agree that the whole brand is based on a lie.

In fact, we feel that Virgin is the most shallow, deceitful, chaotic brand we have ever had the misfortune to come across.

You want an example? VirginMedia has been sold to Liberty Capital. The first thing that has happened is that services are now being restricted to cable customers only, meaning that landline customers with old virgin email addresses are now being cut off and stopped. Hundreds of thousands of them.

Virgin builds brands, chaotically, and then sells them off to the highest bidder with not a thought for the customers.

Take it from two people who have worked for Virgin, at a very high level, the whole brand is smoke and mirrors.

almost 2 years ago

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Dr Mark K. Smith

Agree with Jez about the quality of the article - usual high standard. By contrast however my experience of Virgin Media as a contractor has been a very good one, even during the Liberty Global transition. It's a very tricky thing to take a business over and keep everyone happy. But that's not really my business to comment upon and all are open to their own views of course.

However you do make some reference to the UGC video work at the Commonwealth Games above which was facilitated through our award winning app (my main excuse for writing that is the award was from eConsultancy itself (!) for our video app whilst we operated under the name ipadio!!), the main method of viwewing this content is not actually YouTube - rather the TiVo platform itself - we have developed a tech to take UGC and publish direct to TV - which, with improving quality of phones and bandwidth, is a rather interesting trick and available to millions of TiVo subscribers on their telly right now!

Cheers Mark

almost 2 years ago

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Ben Fuschillo

Great snapshot of big brand storytelling.

Can't deny I'm not a bit fascinated and even a little intrigued by the first hand experience and thoughts from the ex-Virgin employee in the comments section in relation to the piece...

That said, to the outside world, however they tell it, Virgin tell it pretty well.

Yet another digestible and interesting fact piece from Ben at Econsultancy.

Cheers.

almost 2 years ago

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michael

Great article... but contains one major flaw.

Virgin as a group does an amazing job storytelling. The myth they've built up around Richard Branson is incredible (particularly given how little of the 'customer first' DNA penetrates some of his bigger opcos like Virgin Media).

But the article talks about Virgin Media and Virgin Group as if they are interchangeable. Virgin Gyms has nothing to do with BT. Neither does Virgin Money, Virgin Megastore or the Richard Branson timeline.

Yes, the VM ads and sponsorship are excellent (I am biased - I used to work for Virgin Media's marketing department). But they don't really do a job storytelling for VM, so much as provide evidence of the utility of the VM service (fast broadband for better consumption of visual art, music and pop videos).

The Commonwealth Games sponsorship is a bit of a stretch towards 'excellence in everything' and also an attempt to tie Usain Bolt more closely into the VM brand that he's an ambassador for.

Want an excellent example of where Virgin and Virgin Media differ? How about the fact that in Q1 2012, Usain Bolt was contracted as Brand Ambassador for Virgin Media and Virgin Gyms. This diluted the impact he could have had on both brands.

Another example? Vfest is sponsored by Virgin Media - but at a commercial rate priced by a separate part of Virgin Group. Virgin Media are not in charge either artistically or technologically, so miss out on a lot of great opportunities to strut their stuff in front of an enthusiastic audience. Mr Branson benefits but the Media business, well, not so much.

Where VM is excellent is in putting a human face on their brand. They are likeable, charming, and fun - so much less stuffy than either Sky or BT. Go Virgin!

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

@Mark

Thanks for the info about the app. Makes sense people would engage with TiVo whilst viewing broader Commonwealth Games footage, ratehr than on YouTube.

@Michael

Thanks for the insight.

My point was about consistency of message across the group. The value of Branson and the Group may always be intangible, but to those who see the whole thing as intertwined (who have never worked there), it seems to fit.

I'm aware that some of this (VFest) is just sponsorship, but even at that level it's done ok.

Glad you're still enthused. Certainly fascinating to see what a group like this is like from the inside.

almost 2 years ago

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V

As another ex employee of a Virgin company, this time Atlantic / Holidays, couldn't agree more with Jez. Utterly cut throat & uncaring. It's the biggest example of bullsh*t PR branding out there.

Also worth remembering that all the Virgin organisations are different companies, who licence the brand and its use, which is of course strictly controlled. And of course everyone wants Richard, the king of PR, he magnetises attention, traffic and customers. But again, access to Richard and how you are able to use his name, image is of course strictly controlled, let alone rolling him out.

The thing with Virgin is potential and new employees of course have bought into the hype, brand and PR as much as consumers. As a marketer, I couldn't wait to work on such as exciting brand. I, like most others, believed it would be dynamic, innovative, caring, supportive to staff etc.

Of course what you come to realise is the brand controls mean as a marketer it's nothing of the sort. You can't work with it, you can't contribute, you can't change. And that, bottom line, is worth one hell of a lot of money to the businesses. I learnt a huge amount about brand working there, its real value is not just customer acquisition/retention but supplier relationships & bottom line. Organisations fall over each other to work with Virgin. You can really play hardball for the best deals from suppliers. You get given a lot for free or cheap, because it's Virgin and others want the brand association, be it marketing agencies or online advertising. PPC you can appear 3 or 4 positions down and still get greater CTR than others above because the brand attracts. The brand both earns and saves a lot of money, so it's going to be well protected.

However, an organisation can state its brand values all it likes, if it doesn't live up to them, it disappoints hugely. If it doesn't try, it's mismanaging expectations. And if it has no intention of ever doing so, it has no integrity. I'm amazed there's not been more of a backlash ever.

And the other thing of course is that it's built so heavily around Richard and his personal attributes, when he is no longer around, what will become of the brand?

I agree with Jez, but it's not only smoke & mirrors, it's a veritable House of Cards....

almost 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

@V

A great read. Thanks for commenting.

almost 2 years ago

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William Stark

One of the best websites I've seen in mi life. Good to know bynd.com created it.

almost 2 years ago

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