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.