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Learning the lessons of ‘traingate’: brand collisions, collateral damage and the value of authenticity

Much has already been written about Jeremy Corbyn’s infamous Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) London to Newcastle trip on 11 August. Following the journey Mr. Corbyn released a film suggesting a lack of available seats on the train, and also calling for renationalisation of the UK’s trains by way of a solution.  Almost a week later, Sir Richard Branson released a counter-film based on Mr. Corbyn’s journey, using the on-board CCTV, to dispute his claims.

It is unlikely that Mr. Corbyn or his advisers had thought through the consequences of choosing VTEC in particular as the launch pad for their call to renationalise the UK’s trains, but if they had they would have been wise to have noted Lord King’s comments from the early ‘90’s. Lord King, the then boss of British Airways, had at the time become embroiled in a serious dispute with the nascent Virgin Airlines. Lord King acknowledged afterwards that the BA board that severely underestimated Richard Branson, broadly dismissing him beforehand as nothing more threatening as a “bearded hippy”.  

What Mr Corbyn and his team had failed to consider is that Sir Richard Branson is one of the UK’s most respected businessmen for a reason – a man who has created multiple £1 Billion+ valued companies in sectors as diverse as telecoms, music, air & train travel, and finance. Corbyn’s film was a direct challenge to the Virgin brand, a brand that has been nurtured for over thirty years.  Most of us have experienced the Virgin brand at some point, and Sir Richard Branson’s ability to take it from one commercial sector to another with success has largely been based on its authenticity. In essence the Virgin brand’s authenticity has developed by providing outstanding delivery in traditionally moribund product or service areas.

Clearly our own personal views of the Virgin brand are based on our own experiences of dealing with it – for better or for worse. Any brand’s overall value is simply the sum of our own exposures to it, including advertising and word of mouth. With such a potentially damaging challenge coming from Mr. Corbyn (albeit with a wider aim in mind) and its suggestion that Virgin was failing in a core service area – the response was immediate, brutal and effective.  Lord King’s “bearded hippy” demonstrated that Virgin was not prepared to be collateral damage within a wider political debate. As a result, the unexpected attack on Virgin’s authenticity was reversed and quickly became a challenge to Mr. Corbyn’s own political authenticity.   

For a brand to prosper it has to consistently deliver on its claims. Corbyn’s ‘brand’, such that it is, is based upon the sense that he is a conviction politician, a man who does what he says and is immune to the normal feints and tricks associated with the political class. The CCTV footage showing him sitting on a carriage floor outside a toilet, while ignoring many unreserved seats, ran the risk of him appearing inauthentic. Irrespective of the political considerations about the state of our railways in general, with concerns relating to pricing, availability and punctuality, his wider argument was simply hijacked by a different issue. In order to defend the Virgin brand Branson in effect had to damage the Corbyn brand - this truly was a zero sum exchange.

There is also another key issue here – how two completely decision-making cultures get things done. The original film feels like a messy compromise, the result of a series of internal discussions. The clinical brutality of the response however feels like it has been driven by one individual only. The world of politics is said to be based on thousands of compromises, whereas one cannot imagine Sir Richard Branson compromising on anything very often.   

Whatever one’s views about either Jeremy Corbyn or Sir Richard Branson, ‘traingate’ demonstrated that when political planning comes up against hard-nosed commercial reality, it is the commercial reality that has the greater imperative. The Virgin brand had to be protected, and it was. On this occasion when politics collided with business it was business that landed the heaviest blows.

Roy Jeans is chairman of Communication Partners UK

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