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On a Mission to Disrupt the Skies: With Claire Cronin, SVP Marketing @ Virgin Atlantic

Virgin atlantic plane

Since they were founded in 1984 by a music-mogul looking for a new industry to disrupt, Virgin Atlantic have continued to rail against the status quo, and pride themselves on doing so. In fact, disruption is weaved into the very fabric of every Virgin brand. None more so than the air travel arm that challenges the depersonalised travel experience that sees consumers herded like cattle – with no shoes, belt in-hand – through airports, even more so today than back in the early 1980s.

It’s this kind of travel experience that Virgin Atlantic was built to upturn, spearheaded today by Senior Vice President of Marketing, Claire Cronin. We sat down with Claire to discuss Virgin Atlantic’ disruptive purpose, and how she translates that brand purpose into action.

“Travel was a turgid experience; you were strapped to your seat, stuck in what was effectively a tin can, for 8 or 10 hours at a time,” says Claire, talking about the experience that inspired Richard Branson to found the company back in 1984. Their enigmatic leader took his overarching commercial philosophy that had already proved successful in the music industry, “Disrupt business for good”, and applied it to the airline sector. This umbrella still provides purpose to all Virgin brands, and serves as a criteria that the federation of brands must hit. 

“Every single Virgin company has to be able to demonstrate how they are disrupting business for good in their sector.” But how Claire chooses to translate this into the airline space sits firmly in her own hands. It’s that challenge that first attracted Claire to the Virgin Atlantic brand. 

Completing the graduate scheme at a large UK bank she was asked by her then-boss what her dream job would be. Without skipping a beat, she declared, “Easy, Chief Marketing Officer at Virgin Atlantic!”, followed by a raised eyebrow and a rephrased question, “Claire, what would be your dream job here?”, which proved to be more difficult to answer. 

“I thought Virgin Atlantic’s product experience exactly matched up to their customer promise. When those two things are absolutely aligned, that is the nirvana of brands.” Recognising the restless spirit of the whole family of brands, Claire was set on a future at Virgin. “The company’s purpose is so ingrained in the DNA, and it has real longevity across generations. We’re constantly creating new companies; with Hyperloop (600 mph transportation that can only be described as the train of the future), and Galactic (bringing space travel to the masses). We’re looking at new ways to travel in particular, which is very exciting and a real passion of mine.”

How the Virgin master purpose translates for Virgin Atlantic is in a revolutionary three year strategy with a suitably exciting name to match, “Velocity”. At its heart, Velocity aims to cement Virgin Atlantic as the most-loved travel company for consumers of all walks of life. To do this, Virgin Atlantic needs a purpose to aim for all of its own, “Embrace the human spirit and let it fly”. 

Every single Virgin company has to be able to demonstrate how they are disrupting business for good in their sector.

“We want to be able to encourage people to travel the world, but to feel OK about it from an environmental standpoint.” And so, one of the central pillars of the Velocity strategy is to demonstrate that Virgin Atlantic is a socially caring company. 

“Over the next 3 years, we’re investing £1.3 bn in our fleet, so that we can put the most fuel-efficient aircraft into the sky and cut our emissions by 30%. We know our customers care about the environment and their impact on society, so that extends to the decisions we make about what products are on board. For example, we’re just about to change out our coffee supply, to a company called Change Please, set up by Cemal Ezel. His vision was to empower the homeless community by training them to become baristas. Cemal’s business idea was originally funded by Virgin Start-Up and after first showcasing the product at key customer events, it was a no-brainer to put the product on our planes. Our customers love it.”

All of this is being done with consumers firmly in mind. “Millennials in particular are very socially conscious, they’re the most environmentally-minded generation of all time. What we also see is that this demographic then has an influence on their parents and grandparents. They’re infiltrating attitudes outside their own generation. The Baby Boomers grew up with Richard [Branson], we now need to let the Boomer’s children, and their children feel that Virgin is a relevant brand.”

Expanding the relevancy of the Virgin brand is front of mind for Claire this year. With a recently-purchased 30% stake in FlyBe, the traditionally long-haul company are gifted the opportunity to reach both regional communities in the UK, and more of the business-travel market which is increasingly made up of Millennials. 

While Velocity is a strategy to achieve the brand purpose of embracing the human spirit and letting it fly, the partnerships it encompasses offer a much bigger field for this to play out on. “We are a founding member of an expanded joint venture with Air France, KLM and Delta. Between us we represent 24% of the transatlantic capacity in the marketplace. All four airlines are like-minded carriers – united by a pioneering spirit – but we wanted to use our “disrupt business for good” purpose to help influence them to change some of their suppliers. Delta have just announced they’re going to be changing out their onboard headphones with a company called LSTN; for everyone who purchases a pair of these headphones, LSTN will pay for a hearing test for someone in need in the US.”

While Virgin Atlantic are rallying to introduce socially-minded purpose into the airline industry, Claire credits Toms with introducing this model for brands. “Toms shoes have really blazed a trail with their promise: “Buy a pair of our shoes and we’ll put a pair of shoes onto the feet of children in need”. That has become a model, where a brand can be stylish but also caring, and it’s a model that has started to play out in lots of different sectors.”

When it comes to defining the brand’s purpose, Virgin’s people have a large part to play. Not only does their purpose, “Embrace the human spirit and let it fly”, inform customer-facing strategies like Velocity, it serves to open Virgin Atlantic up as an employer. 

“We recognise increasingly that we’ve got a greater role to play in driving-up diversity, particularly in aviation careers. We’ve signed the Aviation Charter to help increase the number of women going into aviation careers, but we also have a stated public commitment to increase our level of BAME representation amongst our employees, to 12% in order to represent the UK norms.”

“It’s just a societal norm that lots of black people don’t learn to swim when they’re younger. So, as an organisation, we’ve said we’ll fund swimming lessons for any candidates, so that it doesn’t become a barrier to entry to joining our cabin crew.” Virgin Atlantic are taking further steps to close the “dream gap” earlier on in the lives of their future employees, too, “There’s a gap in aviation; lots of young girls and children from ethnic minorities don’t see people in (what could be) the careers of their choice, so it automatically limits their field. By the age of five research has shown that children have already started to frame what are boys’ and girls’ jobs, so we have to go in at a really early age. We’re currently partnering with the WE Foundation, to actually go into schools where we have headquarter premises, so we can encourage school children to take up STEM sciences.”

Enabling their employees to thrive is central to Virgin Atlantic’s purpose. In fact, Claire believes the best way to build their brand purpose is from the ground up. “You don’t want colleagues to read a verbatim statement and spit it back at you, you need them to be able to put into their own words what the purpose looks like in their day to day role. We’ve focussed on this, so it really feels authentic, something they understand and can put into action. Core to the idea of embracing the human spirit is our Be Yourself initiative which encourages people to bring their whole self to work, and that’s why none of our service interactions are scripted.”

When you craft your purpose and values with your people, they embrace it and take it to heart.

This strategy informs the way Virgin Atlantic track the reception of their purpose. “We track our employees understanding of the purpose. We embed it in our engagement survey, asking “Do you understand what our purpose is?”, “Do you understand what our values are?” and “Do you understand how you can translate them into your core job?”. Within the first year of launching our Purpose and Values in Virgin Holidays, we achieved scores in the high 80s to all three questions. When you craft your purpose and values with your people, they embrace it and take it to heart.” 

Authenticity is Claire’s number one priority for the purpose in her brand, and her top piece of advice for any marketeer working on their own brand’s purpose. Recognising that marketing communications are only one home for brand purpose, Claire notes that, “It has to be something that can genuinely live in enduring ways throughout your organisation and all your touchpoints. It has to be something that can be manifested in your product offering. It has to drive the way you create new products and take them to market. For us, and our embracing of the human spirit, it’s that the minute you walk into the clubhouse or onto the plane our people treat you as an individual. And, internally, it’s how we empower our people.”

Back in the 1980s air travel was stuffy and elite, while today it suffers from overcrowding and depersonalisation. In 1984 Virgin Atlantic launched with a rebel mentality and quickly became famous for being a “party in the sky” thanks to the onboard bar. Fast forward to 2019 and their new A350 has replaced the bar with a more flexible Loft space, where customers can work, dine or watch a movie together. “The new GenZ consumers drink less and are more focused on their total wellbeing, so we needed to cater for the new trends.Throughout this transformation, and continuing into the future with multiple carrier partners and new like-minded suppliers in tow, Virgin Atlantic’s brand purpose, to “Embrace the human spirit and let it fly” is well and truly disrupting the airline industry for good.

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