How to avoid multiple personality brand disorder: a look at Virgin Trains

Virgin: Abandon all travel

During last month’s stormy weather, Virgin Trains tweeted a message to its customers to “ABANDON ALL TRAVEL”. This didn’t just get the attention of its followers who re-tweeted and replied in considerable numbers, it also led to a huge variety of spoofs and comments filled with dry humour and feigned panic. Newspapers and media picked up on the Twitter trend, leading to prime-time interviews and mainstream media coverage. By posting an overly dramatic but tongue-in-cheek tweet, the reach and impact of Virgin Trains’ message was increased easily tenfold compared to more ordinary updates.

There is an important lesson here for businesses using social media channels for their communications. Many businesses have a strict separation between their marketing communications, corporate communications and customer relations; and they are often not quite sure how social media fits in to that mix.

Virgin trains abandon travel

Social Media Today advises that “you can develop your brand’s voice by looking at it as a personality rather than a company. Drawing upon existing messaging, think about ways to translate your identity into words.” Businesses often use different teams for various types of updates, but when these teams all speak with a different tone of voice, they essentially present multiple personalities to their customers. If customer care messages are formal, while community managers banter or lead playful exchanges, while the marketing department shouts pushy ‘buy-me’ messages, customers are likely to dislike all three of those voices for being contrived or impersonal, and eventually disengage with the brand.

Virgin Trains, however, seems to stay consistent in its messaging. From the sign in the train toilet that advises against flushing ‘goldfish’ or ‘hopes and dreams’, to the tweet to ‘abandon all travel’, Virgin Trains’ personality is always a bit cheeky yet informative and helpful. They get the message across without being quite as gratingly twee as some brands, derided by 33revolutionsperminute as “jolly, zany and childlike, but with a colder undercurrent of authority, judgement and passive aggression.” When Virgin Trains responds to customer issues, it manages to combine being informative with being genuinely friendly, affecting a tone very similar to that of ordinary Twitter users giving each other information or advice.

Virgin trains abandon travel

Virgin Trains’ most outrageous content is also very shareable. It takes advantage of the fact, pointed out in RealBusiness, that “you can’t maintain control over where your content appears when it comes to social media and online channels. Anyone can share what you’re saying, on any channel of their choosing, so ensuring consistency really is key”. A similar point was made by Mondelez’s media manager Rob Ellison at the MRS Annual conference, Impact 2014, this week when discussing their Cream Egg campaign.

By posting an engaging service update, Virgin Trains ensured that ‘abandon all travel’ reached a much larger audience than ‘all services are suspended due to adverse weather’. While initially the overly dramatic all-caps message appeared to be a gaffe, it was actually an excellent example of effective communications. It reached a much greater audience both directly, through re-tweets, and through creative reactions (in turn re-tweeted), than any other service update during a flood (pun intended) of service updates and storm information. And it also re-affirmed a consistent brand personality and started conversations in the best tradition of community management through banter.

Virgin trains abandon travel

While Virgin Trains is not the first to create shareable content to enhance its brand profile, and not even the first we’ve blogged about at Precise, the difference is that the ‘abandon’ tweet, as well as most Virgin Trains Twitter content, is perfectly embedded in necessary and useful communications. It is not banter for banter’s sake, or a picture of a dog or kitten posted by a brand that has nothing to do with dogs or kittens.

It appears that Virgin Trains does not have the same barriers between its communications, marketing, and community management that exist in many corporate environments, and as a result, it has achieved multiple goals at once: increasing brand awareness, increasing the reach of an urgent and essential message, and improving perceptions of the brand. A consistent brand voice that engages on a personal level across multiple channels has become the key to communications that are actually more effective on many levels at once.