Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited

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Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited

The Office
Manor Royal
Crawley, West Sussex RH10 2NU
United Kingdom
Telephone: 44 1293 616161
Fax: 44 1293 561721
Web site:



Helmed by the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited hoped to attract the posh jet-setters abandoned by Concorde, a line of supersonic jets owned by British Airways. The Concorde flew twice the speed of most commercial jets, but on October 24, 2003, British Airways discontinued its service because of economic factors and a marred image after a Concorde crashed in France. Even though the Concorde disaster claimed 113 lives, British Airways in 2002 still dominated the U.K. airline industry with $11.8 billion in sales, overshadowing Virgin's $2 billion.

Branson, famous for his playboy antics and shrewd business instincts, was disappointed by Virgin's "Serious Fun" campaign, which had begun in the late 1990s. In 2003 Virgin awarded its advertising budget, estimated at $12 to $15 million, to Miami-based agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The agency created a campaign dubbed "Go, Jet Set, Go!" It began in late 2003 with advertising appearing across print, outdoor, online, television, movie product placement, television product placement, and alternative advertising. Chris Rossi, vice president of sales and marketing at Virgin Atlantic, said to the PR Newswire, "The goal of this campaign is to communicate the style and glamour of our Upper Class cabin and the new Upper Class Suite product features in a way that will captivate and entertain business flyers." The campaign coincided with Virgin embellishing its Upper Class service by adding features such as in-flight massages, larger sleeping areas, in-flight beauty therapists, and a stand-up bar, similar to minibars located in shopping malls.

"Go, Jet Set, Go!" earned Crispin Porter + Bogusky a silver EFFIE along with other awards, and it helped Virgin increase sales from $2 billion in 2002 to $8.1 billion in 2004. Alex Bogusky, a partner at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, told Advertising Age, "As Virgin Atlantic has grown up, the pressure has been on to be a more grownup company and less fun. But we're embracing fun to make the product less of a commodity and more about the experience."


As a young man, Richard Branson founded a London-based recording studio called Virgin in the early 1970s, his first of many Virgin-branded companies. Branson's empire eventually grew to include magazines, cola, a music retail chain, trains, a mobile-phone service provider, and his most ambitious project, Virgin Atlantic Airways, which was founded in 1984. Virgin's maiden flight was made between London's Gatwick Airport and Newark, New Jersey, with the airline's only plane, a used Boeing 747, filled with pop stars and journalists. The airline continued targeting the wealthy, celebrities, and fashionistas into the late 1990s.

Virgin's "Serious Fun" campaign exploited the success of the Austin Powers movies. Billboards for the campaign displayed actor Mike Myers, outfitted as Mr. Powers, beneath the tagline: "Five times a day. Yeah, baby." The ad referred to Virgin's addition of a fifth daily flight between New York and London. Barbara Lippert, writer for Adweek, stated, "The whole thing is aimed at the sensibility of a 12-year-old boy and that's who advertisers want to reach, even if that 12-year-old is 24." After the campaign ended, Virgin representatives discredited it as "moronic" and a "cop-out." In 2003 the airline shopped a plethora of agencies in search of a more sophisticated advertising approach.

In 2003 Crispin Porter + Bogusky pitched a new image for Virgin flights as the "party on the way to London." John Riordan, Virgin's vice president for customer services, told Newsweek that Virgin was hesitant about the concept at first. Eventually, however, the company embraced Crispin Porter + Bogusky's vision, with the caveat that the word "party" was not to appear in any ad. Crispin Porter + Bogusky creatives in August 2003 toyed with campaign taglines such as "Jet swanky" and "Going up?" before they settled on "Go, Jet Set, Go!" The tagline played on the appellation "jet-setter," defined as a wealthy traveler who jets from one fashionable location to the next. "We're thinking of it as the 'Just do it' of travel," Bogusky told Newsweek. "It's a call to action to get out there and do great things."


"Go, Jet Set, Go!" targeted affluent, international flyers who did not classify as the typical business traveler. This included rock stars, supermodels, financiers, rap stars, and electronica DJs. Bogusky told the New York Times that Crispin Porter + Bogusky wanted to "appeal to the kind of people who appreciate the idea that though they're working hard, they deserve to have a good time." The firm, aware that their target was typically too busy to be exposed to network television spots or direct mail, used alternative advertising to increase visibility. Upper Class Virgin Atlantic beds were placed inside swanky department stores for people to try out. In order to target passengers descending in their competitor's aircraft, Virgin fixed massive advertisements to the rooftops of airport buildings.

One of the campaign's boldest moves involved creating a short pornography-spoof titled "Suite and Innocent." Crispin Porter + Bogusky felt the film was an effective way to attract the 78 percent of the target market that stayed at hotels equipped with LodgeNet, the pay-per-view channels that the film played on. "We were trying to figure out the best way to reach these highly elusive business travelers and this is where they're spending their time," Chris Rossi, vice president for North American sales and marketing, told the New York Times.


British Airways, the fifth-largest airline in the world and the largest in the United Kingdom, pitted itself fiercely against Virgin in the early 1990s. In 1993 Branson took British Airways to court after it inflated rumors about Virgin's debt and Branson's drug addiction. In the libel settlement Branson won $5 million, which he distributed amongst his employees. One of the most galvanizing decisions British Airways made to ensure its position in the United Kingdom was partnering with American Airlines, the world's largest airline in 2003. Branson described competing against the two giants as comparable to "having a bleeding contest with a blood bank." British Airways posted sales at $14 billion in 2000, a figure which had slipped slightly below $14 billion by 2004. The slippage was attributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the surfacing of cheaper no-frills airlines, and the emergence of international European airlines such as Deutsche Lufthansa, British Midland Airways, and Virgin.


Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur that the British, in a poll, voted as the third most qualified Brit to rewrite the Ten Commandments, became one of the world's best-known "rebel billionaires." Some of his commercial exploits involved helming the first commercial rock station in the U.K. as well as launching a commercial music retail chain, a commercial train service, and a pay-as-you-go mobile phone service. In 1999 Branson conceived Virgin Galactic, an airline that promised commercial space travel. By leaving the earth's atmosphere, the service would reduce the flight between London and Sydney to a mere three hours. Virgin hoped to have the service operating by 2010.

To keep its grip on the U.K. market, British Airways spent an estimated $100 million on marketing in 2005. P.J. O'Rourke, the biting American satirist, became the airline's new spokesperson. British Airways began announcing bargain flight deals, such as "only £69 to go to Paris," on the back of ATM receipts. In a live-theater advertisement that took place throughout Heathrow Airport, actors were hired to perform scripts that boasted of British Airway's services. Employees also posted pro-British Airways content in Internet chat rooms. Jayne O'Brien, British Airways' marketing chief, told the Independent, "People see about 3,000 advertising statements a day. The challenge to the marketer is how you are going to get your message heard, engaged with and understood by the market."


Early ads for "Go, Jet Set, Go!" were launched in late 2003, during the final days of British Airways' Concorde. Virgin ads toasted the Concorde's final flight and offered its abandoned clientele their services. Complimentary copies of a short book titled "Night-Night Jet Set," mimicking the children's book format, began appearing in Virgin's upper-class suites. It featured text such as, "Night-Night rap superstar lounging in 7F. When finished signing contracts your massage waits to the left," and "Night-Night fashion goddess reading in 5D. Where did you get those shoes? We really must see." Airsickness bags doubled as origami 747s and planting pots. Virgin began product placement in movies such as Love Actually and Calendar Girls, both British-made. Virgin branding also appeared on NBC's reality-TV show American Princess. Ralph Bershefsky, a manager of advertising for Virgin in the United States, told Advertising Age, "We receive between 100 to 200 requests for sponsorship a week, so we have a tough time deciding what to do."

At the time of the campaign's launch, Virgin furnished its upper-class suites with a flat bed, table, and chair that could be enclosed with a temporary wall. The beds were the longest in the airline industry. Models of upper-class suites were placed inside posh department stores so that shoppers could see Virgin's improved features. Andrew Keller, Crispin Porter + Bogusky's creative director, told Advertising Age, "We're going to have events in the sky, such as business summits. We want to change the culture of flying so that it's not all about the destination. We want to change the game and make people want the experience." Virgin handed out destination luggage labels, similar to ones that were popularized in the late nineteenth century. As Christine Bittar wrote in Brandweek, "Experience is more meaningful than size for the Richard Branson airline. Making the Upper Class Suite flight more than just a trip means clients can eat meals whenever they want, enjoy a scalp and shoulder massage at the salon area, or mingle at the bar."

Print ads that appeared in magazines mimicked the laminated safety-information sheets found in airplane seat-pockets. Text stating, "No bouncing on the largest fully flat bed in business class," appeared above a diagram of a man jumping on his bed. Crispin Porter + Bogusky placed a 120-by-520-foot "Go, Jet Set, Go!" billboard on a rooftop near Los Angeles International Airport to target flyers looking out their windows as they landed. A similar ad was placed near New York's JFK airport. Crispin Porter + Bogusky used such innovative mediums to overcome one of the campaign's greatest challenges: reaching international travelers who were unlikely to take heed of traditional advertising. In October 2004 Virgin launched its nine-and-a-half-minute pornography parody, "Suite and Innocent", which cost $1 million and ran on pay-per-view channels in hotels until the end of 2004. Although the spoof was without nudity or profanity, it was riddled with double entendres and featured characters with such names as Miles High, Big Ben, and Summer Turbulence. "Virgin is a brand that likes to push the edge," Chris Rossi, one of Virgin's vice presidents, told Fast Company magazine. "Even so, I would never have given the green light for the LodgeNet piece if the agency didn't have the strategic thinking and research to back it up."


"God Save the Queen," a Sex Pistols hit that bashed the queen of England, was recorded at Richard Branson's Virgin recording studio during the mid-1970s. The band later played the song on a boat upon the Thames during Britain's 1977 Jubilee. The band was quickly stopped and arrested. Ironically, Branson was later knighted by the queen. "It's strange," Branson said regarding the ceremony, "… I was wondering whether the sword, instead of touching [my shoulders], was going to [chop off my head]!"


"Go, Jet Set, Go!" ran during a time of increased sales growth for Virgin, whose $2 billion in sales for 2002 had risen to $8.1 billion by 2004. The percentage increase was significantly higher than that of Virgin's largest domestic competitor, British Airways, which improved from $11.8 billion in 2002 to just below $14 billion in 2004. Ad industry success ensued as well. In 2005 the campaign won a silver EFFIE Award along with a gold Clio Award for Contact and Content (a category that recognized innovation in reaching customers).

Many sources also noted the mutual admiration between Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Virgin. Of working with Virgin, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, well known for its MINI Cooper "Let's Motor" campaign and Burger King "Subservient Chicken" campaign, said: "The opportunity to work for one of the coolest brands in the world was something we found very appealing. When we learned more about it and found that it truly did reflect the maverick spirit and entrepreneurial drive of founder Richard Branson, we got even more fired up." Virgin also seemed happy to end its previous "Serious Fun" campaign and doted on Crispin Porter + Bogusky.


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Atkinson, Claire. "Virgin Airlines Promo Targets 'Jetrosexuals'; Movie and TV Tie-Ins Also Part of Major Push." Advertising Age, November 3, 2003, p. 58.

Bittar, Christine. "Tools of the Trade." Brandweek, February 23, 2004.

Burrell, Ian. "In It for the Long Haul: Marketing: British Airways." Independent (London), June 20, 2005, p. 12.

Campo-Flores, Arian. "Virgin's New Flight of Fancy." Newsweek, November 10, 2003, p. 42.

Elliot, Stuart. "Sir Richard's Airline, Always Irreverent, Moves to the Next Plateau with a Spoof of Pornography." New York Times, October 4, 2004, p. 10.

Ives, Nat. "Tongue-in-Cheek Ads from Virgin Atlantic." New York Times, October 27, 2003, p. 8.

Lauro, Patricia Winters. "Big Marketers Are Betting on 'Austin Powers' to Endear Them to Young People." New York Times, June 14, 1999, p. 17.

Lazare, Lewis. "Diageo Ads Tout No-Carb Brands." Chicago Sun-Times, April 21, 2004, p. 83.

Mack, Ann. "CP+B Takes Flash Ads into Virgin Territory." Adweek, April 26, 2004, p. 12.

Waples, John. "Branson's Biggest Battle." Sunday Times (London), November 18, 2001.

                                                Kevin Teague