Image Is No Substitute for Value

Article excerpt

Virgin Cola is an inferior drink which deserved to fail, says Winston Fletcher. Richard Branson ignored traditional marketing, relying on Virgin's image instead

All serious business people - and most certainly all serious marketing people - should greet the decline and fall of Virgin Cola with loud hosannas and a fanfare of trumpets. No doubt that sounds rather uncharitable. But Virgin' Cola did not deserve to succeed, and its stumbling progress reveals a great deal both about the Virgin brand and about the healthy nature of marketing in a highly competitive economy.

Virgin may find the truth unpalatable but nobody with taste buds worthy of the name believes Virgin Cola to be as good as either Coke or Pepsi. In addition to the forceful and unyielding opinions of my own palate, there is copious evidence from all around the world that the Cott recipe on which the Virgin brand is based is less acceptable than its two great competitors. (Both of which, make no mistake about it, are ambrosial drinks: nobody gets to be that successful selling fizzy puddlewater.)

Brands that guarantee value

Naturally the supermarkets, eyeing the sales and profits of the two great colas, wanted to have a share of the action. And they hoped that there would be a significant segment of customers either willing to sacrifice quality to save money, or with tongues so furred up they couldn't discriminate between the good, the bad and the wishy-washy. They have been proved modestly right - though far fewer customers are willing to buy colas on price than might have been expected.

But brands called Sainsbury or Tesco carry a particular kind of value guarantee. When customers choose a retailer's brand, they know what they are getting. Virgin, however, is something else. The Virgin brand does not carry the same connotations as a retailer's brand. And strange though this may sound, in my view, branding is something that Virgin does not understand that well.

A taste for publicity stunts

Virgin's confusion about its own brand name probably stems from two sources. First, Virgin began life in the pop music business. Second, it has been established by means of 19th century publicity stunts rather than by 20th century marketing.

First, Virgin's origins. In the music business - as in the publishing and movie businesses - manufacturers' brand names don't mean a lot. Sales follow artists. It must be very galling to publishers that book buyers choose authors rather than imprints, and deeply hurtful to movie magnates that cinema-goers favour stars and directors rather than production companies. But that's the way things are. (Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg are not exceptions to this rule. They made their names as directors, and their brands are still expected to reflect their particular directorial skills.).

Branson never made music. He was a record publisher who picked well and managed adroitly. …