What Virgin can learn from Apple (and three other thoughts on a plane)

I was trying to charge my phone on my Virgin Atlantic flight home from London and one of the attendants descended on me to insist that I cease and desist.  I tried to explain that a cell phone was essential to meeting up with one’s car service. She didn’t care.

I thought to myself, "this is not what Apple would have done."  Apple had the very clever idea of turning a moment of customer unhappiness into an exercise in the Apple way.  So we enter the Apple store with our wounded iPhone braced for an unpleasant, accusatory, uncooperative engagement with the "support" staff, and lo and behold, the Apple people actually seem to want to help, to shoulder more than their share of the responsibility to put things right, and then to send us on our way with a song in our heart.  Steve Jobs has found a way to colonize and convert the misery inflected on us by product malfunction.  So simple, so smart, and actually not very difficult.

Virgin Atlantic has not got the news.  They have an unreasonable policy.  (The adapter I was not allowed to use to charge my iPhone was perfectly ok to run my ThinkPad.)  This policy has been seized upon by a staff member as an opportunity to play "big nurse."  (How frustrating for a corporation when a member of the corporation uses their power for personal purposes in this way.)  And when I pled my case, she just got worse.  And Virgin looked still more heartless and unreasonable.

You kill yourself to build a brand, and this happens.  Natalie could have found a way to give me an extra 5 minutes of charge.  "Our little secret" and "this is an exception I make only for you" would have augmented the brand wonderfully.  But no.  Natalie was triumphant. And damn the brand.

Everything else about the VA experience, I have to say, was really pretty well done.  I recommend it.  (Just be careful to avoid you know who.)  


BP has now worked it’s way through the Kubler Ross stages of grief and bows before it’s fate.  There is only one way out.  I wish I had thought of it, but I must give credit to Gregg Fraley who over drinks after the London Bootcamp noted that BP needed to make itself the absolute master of ecological calamities, the company to whom the rest of the world turns when something like this goes wrong, the go-to expert from this point forward.  Otherwise, they are utterly the villain of the piece and the brand is a write off.  (See Greg’s blog here.)


I found a piece in The Financial Times on luxury flourishing in certain markets.  That it should do so in China is perhaps not surprising.  In Shanghai a Rolls Royce Ghost costs a quarter of million dollars.  (A Phantom twice as much.)  All the better to send that status message.  But then we are accustomed to seeing classic competitive spending, status emulation, and conspicuous consumption of this kind, and indeed, we have ideas at the ready from Veblen, Simmel and Warner, to name a few.

But luxury is flourishing in other places (and in China, in other ways) and it would appear that these traditional consumer motives are being supplanted by new ones. And then the question is, gosh, really?  Is it possible that luxury purposes serves a new emotional purposes?  Is luxury becoming more private message than a public one?  And does this private message have something to do with defining and securing us in a world awash with change? It seemed to me that some of our collective thoughts on the new Burberry branding on behalf of its trench coat might point in this direction.  Just wonderin.  Do luxury brands have new power?  This is Virginia Postrel territory and defer to her thoughts on the matter (whatever they should prove to be!)


I am reading Lodger Shakespeare by Charles Nicholl.  I am only 20 pages in but already I detect a rising admiration and envy.  How wonderful to have a very clear topic and narrow focus.  This is what we all want: an intellectual undertaking large enough to warrant attention and small enough to limit the facts known and task assigned.  What most of us get instead is a body of knowledge and responsibility that is shapeless, fluid, and episodically inscrutable. Lucky Charles.  He is made a mesmerizing job of it.  


Nicholls, Charles.  2010.  Lodger Shakespeare.  Available from Amazon here.

2 thoughts on “What Virgin can learn from Apple (and three other thoughts on a plane)

  1. dave

    the luxury continuation is not surprising at all. In the biggest part of the world ( asia of course ) all the turns and twists that saw luxury play out over the last century from extreme exclusivity to massification, from overt badging to inner achievenment and self worth continue to play. But Grant you have touched on simething we have been noting and exploring for a while .. what we have labelled Intelux ( and maye a seperate post on why we all feel the need to develop new language for the blatently obvious concept is more appropriate for a CCO debate ).

    the idea of intelligent luxury strated I guess with LV, Cartier etc undertaking to add High culture to their brand associations with exclusive art shows etc. But at the same time in Japan for example ( that most extreme of mass in depoth luxury markets ) we noted it when we saw people , ordinary people in so many ways, who were real experts on a particular luxury brand, product, stitching style etc. You know something is happening when you hear an ordinary, not particularly high middle class housewife, saying that she collects bags not by brand or designer but by the person who designed a particulat stitch used on inner linings. Or when the iphone was launched that people in focus groups were talking not of Steve J but of the design team and why they used a particular curve on the corners of the device.

    so your note struck a chord. what I am seeing from my Tokyo based, asia centric view is that luxury never slipped away .. it just keeps getting deeper. Luv to swap stories on this some time

  2. Pingback: Grant McCracken: What Virgin Can Learn From Apple (And Three Other Thoughts On A Plane) - PSFK

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