The London Economic

Virgin Trains East Coast: A Lesson in Distasteful Branding

The test of successful branding hinges on three things; Is it meaningful, is it likeable and is it memorable?

Or so Matt Symonds of Fortuna Admissions tells me. I honestly don’t know what makes a brand successful, but as I sit here on a train to King’s Cross from Leeds I can’t help but feel a little unsettled by the Virgin branding that litters the iconic InterCity 225’s that have worked the 393-mile long line skirting the spine of Britain since the early ‘90s.

The franchise for the line was sold to Stagecoach and Virgin in November of last year and has been operating under Virgin Trains East Coast since March 1st, bringing it back into private hands after five years being run by publicly-owned East Coast. The debate over whether or not this move is in the interest of the tax paying public has already been settled; it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the biggest parliamentary swiv since Royal Mail was sold off to Osborne’s mates.

But that’s by the by. What really concerns me today – other than the painstakingly slow £10 wifi connection – is how ridiculous the new trains look.

Despite having only a ten per cent share in the company, the familiar red of Richard Branson’s Virgin is the brand Stagecoach consented to be painted across its newly acquired fleet of trains. At the moment most of the rolling stock is only partially tarred by the Virgin brand, but soon enough all of the proud InterCity trains will be coated in a colour that is so out of touch with the line’s identity that it’s almost laughable.

The East Coast mainline is refined and stylish. Parts of it are among the most scenic train routes in the country. It is a line that holds a place in the hearts of all who have travelled it, evoking feelings of nostalgia, warmth and an inherent likeability. The Virgin brand is about none of these things and has become so diluted that it’s hard to think what it means any more. How can it have any semblance of ‘meaning’ when it’s a brand that is slapped on everything from small business loans to space tourism?

This game of sticking a Virgin brand on anything they can find makes it really rather unlikeable. When logistics firm Sea Containers took the franchise in ‘96 they branded their operations GNER – Great North Eastern Railway – using the slogan ‘Route of the Flying Scotsman’ to really drive home an almost patriotic pride in a line that has seen Sir Nigel Gresley’s Mallard break the speed record for steam locomotives, saloons carting royalty around the country and classes worth of witches and wizards going to school on the Hogwarts Express. Virgin Trains East Coast opted for slogans such as ‘The Start of an Amazing Journey’, which is a really wanky way of degrading a line of such prominence in popular culture.

Ultimately, there is nothing memorable about Virgin Trains East Coast. When the deal was announced last year Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said passengers will be at “the heart of the service”. But a tenth off the price of a ticket to Stevenage doesn’t appease me. The genericness of Virgin’s brand could mean that there’s soon no heart left.

7 Responses

  1. David

    Oh deer another negative person this time about the looks.

    The prevoius East Coast livery of grey was not bright and cheerful nor attractive. From the enthusiasts view its been along since anyone went mad taking lots of photos because they like the Virgin livery brand very much just like something similar to say coco colas famouz red branding.

    Its the 1st time in ages that anyone has added a black window band also around the headlights. The Intercity swallow was the last one to feature this making the train look more streamlined. Even the Virgin wraps are enough just on a tempoary basis.

    I love the stagecoach livery on a East MIDLANDS HST like the one on hire to Virgin.

    1. John Rees

      I don`t give a shit what the bloody colour is of the train…………. what matters is the over pricing of the tickets……..for god sake take your head out of your underpants and smell the fresh air?

  2. Harryh

    Couldn’t agree less. East Coast had driven customer service into the ground to return profits to the tax payer. The cheaply refurbed train they got from South West trains exemplifies this perfectly. I’ve travelled the line for a decade and the last three have been unremarkable and disappointing just like the East Coast brand. What the line needs is long term sustainable investment. Hopefully that can start now the fate of the franchise is set. Speeding the line up to 140 mph and the hitachi trains on 2018 will go a long way to improving things. I’ve occasionally used the west coast line and been blown away by the difference. Better trains, better staff, better ticket pricing. It’s time the East Coast main line got back to being the countries primary rail route.

    1. Sandancer

      Are you living in a parallel universe? The East Coast refurbs last time around were instigated by GNER, not the government-owned operator, and the customer service has always been second to none in my experience. The advance tickets are excellent, with regular promotions offering Newcastle to London from £10. Plus, the Rewards scheme was the best in the business. Virgin West Coast trains are cramped and dirty by comparison.

  3. Peter

    Couldn’t agree more. The branding is utter horrid. Looks like a child’s train set. The government flatly refuses the invest in East Coast as they HAD to off load the business before the General Election. Hence East Coast DOR a remarkable job of returning money to the taxpayer will operating on zero investment. By the way. Virgin has a clause built into its East Coast the allows it to claim money off the Government should any open access operator, ie COMPETITION, extrapolates any money off Virgin’s income. Much like Virgin West Coast, who still live off subsidy. The Tory’s favourite has protected him from loosing money through competition. Ahh, Mr Branson’s idea on Private Enterprise eh? Not in my back yard!

  4. James

    Myself I would have rather seen a similar rebrand to what happened with First Great Western, using the Name Great Western Railway. I would have liked to have seen LNER | London North Eastern Railway return under a light green shade.

  5. John

    As Branson’s Brand is also cherry picking and profiteering from our NHS. The Virgin logo will undoubtedly make those more ethical potential passengers from choosing an alternate means of travel. Branson might be celebrating his NHS compensation of £328,00 but this will prove to be a hollow victory as Virgin Industries continues on this race to the bottom of popularity.

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