How to build a brand – and what a brand really is

When Virgin Mobile merged with cable operator NTL Telewest, Richard Branson ensured that something vital was done at NTL Telewest before the Virgin brand could be associated with it. The customer service was improved.

Gordon McCallum, chief executive officer of Virgin Management Limited, said at the time that: “Taking on the Virgin brand is about much more than a new name and logo above the door… Much has already been achieved and we’re confident that the company’s on track to deliver the Virgin promise when we re-brand next year.”

The same approach was taken by Southern Railway. When they took over the Connex SouthCentral railway line, they didn’t stick “Southern Railway” everywhere. Instead, they temporarily called the train company SouthCentral. Posters were placed at stations saying that the new train operator had ordered lots of trains, and as soon as Network Rail had upgraded the electricity supplies on the tracks, they’d be able to put them into use and the new Southern Railway would be born.

Both Virgin and Southern Railway know that their brands are not merely about a logo or a paint job. When Virgin lost its InterCity rail franchise last year, there public made clear its annoyance – and the government was forced into a u-turn. That was not merely because people liked the Virgin logo. Those fantastically comfortable and smart Pendolino trains Virgin acquired had a lot to do with it. The trains are always clean. And the staff on-board are friendly.

A brand is really a customer’s emotional reaction to the whole of the service provided. It’s not just the design of the adverts: it’s also helpfulness of call centre staff; the effectiveness of the product or service; and the way problems are handled. No one gets it all right. But a brand-building exercise which doesn’t consider the full customer experience is doomed to fail.