Branson’s Daily Mail u-turn brings Virgin’s brand values into question

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Virgin Trains

Sir Richard Branson is no virgin when it comes to hitting the headlines, but his latest controversy suggests a brand in conflict with itself.

One minute Virgin Trains is banning the sale of the Daily Mail from its onboard shops or providing it in first-class carriages, the next minute Branson is stepping in to reverse the decision.

Virgin Trains had told staff that the paper was not compatible with its brand or beliefs after colleagues had expressed “considerable concern” over the Mail’s editorial position on issues like immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment.

Virgin has always stood for everything punk, edgy and cool, so why get into such a pickle? Surely if any company can take a stand against hate speech, it’s a Virgin company and, in any case, is it not well within its rights to stock whatever paper it chooses?

Would it now bow to Stop Funding Hate’s demands and pull its advertising from the Mail? Or is it running scared of a possible Paperchase-style backlash?

Instead, rather than defend Virgin Trains' position, master PR man Branson went on the attack on behalf of the freedom of expression brigade as the Mail cried censorship and the likes of Boris Johnson waded in on social media calling the ban “pompous, censorious and wrong #virginontheridiculous”.

Branson lectured us all online, saying: “Freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views are the core principles of any free and open society.”

Yes, we know. That's kind of the point.

Instead of righting a wrong, it looks like Branson’s merely managed to muddy the waters in branding terms.

He says he didn’t know about the ban until he saw the headlines. Maybe this is a lesson in centralising communications, reigning in output so that a diversified company doesn’t give its staff so much leeway that they share 'differing views' from their bosses.

Or perhaps he missed a trick and didn't fathom how hypocritical it would be for Virgin and Richard Branson, such supporters of freedom, of smoking marijuana if you want to, to take a leaf out of the oppressors’ books.

Many people think the Daily Mail was right when it said it was disgraceful that the taxpayer was bailing out Virgin's East Coast franchise.

With the Mail on the attack, did someone at Virgin think it a good idea to hit back at negative criticism by censoring the source – even though it sells only 70 copies of the Daily Mail a day on its trains?

Conflicting stories then compounded the PR damage. The leaked internal memo said quite clearly that the Mail wasn’t compatible with Virgin brand values. Then someone in the PR unit put out some cock and bull about there not being enough space to stock the paper.

It all begs the question: are Virgin’s avowed brand values mere window dressing, a front to mask traditional Conservatism at the helm?

We’re led to believe that within its DNA, the Virgin brand has deep socialist roots, that bravery, unorthodoxy and freedom of expression are core. Now we’re led to wonder whether Branson’s laissez-faire, man-of-the-people persona is truly authentic.

The late Malcolm McLaren, founder of the Sex Pistols and godfather of punk, famously said: “Never trust a hippy”.

Up until now, Branson’s perceived rebelliousness has let his brand get away with a lot. At the height of #metoo revelations last year, the Sun ran a story about Branson on its front page. It reported on singer Antonia Jenae’s allegations of ‘motorboating’ at a party.

Jenae, a singer in Joss Stone’s entourage, says Branson pushed his head into her breasts “shaking it vigorously while blowing raspberries”. She said it felt like a sexual assault, but despite this full front-page bombshell, the ripples of censure didn’t reach very far.

Branson’s personal brand allows a bit of bad behaviour. Water off a duck’s back.

There are inconsistencies throughout the Branson narrative. The billionaire businessman backed the Remain campaign and was pictured jet skiing with Labour’s ally president Obama at his British Virgin Islands home.

He’s described by Wikipedia as a philanthropist, among other things, and yet he seemed to have had no problem with taking a slice of the Tories’ NHS privatisation pie.

Virgin Care had won several major contracts for community health and care services in recent years. Then it forced the health service to settle for an undisclosed amount in November last year after it lost out on an £82m contract and sued the NHS citing concerns over “serious flaws” in the way the contract was awarded.

Labour labelled it a scandal.

Is it possible that at this brand’s core we have nothing more than a rich boy acting out, a rebel without a cause, a city suit in hippy clothing? The progressive veneer could be wearing thin. Certainly, judging by this latest PR fiasco, Virgin’s values may not be as pure as they’re painted.

It’s when the chips are down that we see the true measure of people and brands, and Virgin’s beginning to look more than a little sullied.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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