Virgin Atlantic’s branding on social media: leveraging brand attitudes and brand activity

Written by Anna Atras

Introduction and purpose

In recent years, branding has been drastically affected by the Internet’s growing power (de Chernatony, 2006 cited in Cooper, 2010). Multiple interactive platforms lured mass of customers, and companies gradually started to realize they need to get comfortable in this interactive environment if they want to keep their brands alive in the customers’ minds  (Cooper, 2010; Armelini & Vilaneva, 2009). The reason behind this transition is the empowerment of customers, who want their voice to be heard (Corstjens & Umblijs, 2012). Karpinski (2005 cited in Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011, p. 267) called this empowerment ‘’bottom-up marketing’’, characterized by shift from a simple brand information broadcast to the  conversation between a brand and its customers, but also among the audience itself, which simultaneously degraded marketer’s position from an authority to a moderator (Blakeman & Brown, 2010). Social media revolutionized marketing (Armelini & Villanueva, 2009) and outdated traditional ‘’push’’ techniques (Hanna et al., 2011). Knowing the current state of events, this article aims to identify the challenges and opportunities that face marketers in the interactive environment, especially when it comes to branding on social media. In order to portray how brands can convert emerging challenges to their advantage and simultaneously foster positive brand attitudes and encourage brand engagement, the case study of Virgin Atlantic Airlines (VAA) will be employed.

Theoretical framework

Branding is closely connected with the channels utilized for communicating the brand message. Social media became a viable communication channel and a ‘’fundamental part of brand building’’, even though marketers still struggle with using it effectively (Stokes, 2012, p.1). Social media, encompassing networking  platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, are defined as technologies that enabled formation of powerful global community and sharing of the user-generated content (UGC) (Andzulis, Panagopoulos & Rapp, 2012). VAA uses social media to implement its social strategy incorporating serving, selling and socializing, but the airline’s main goal is to strengthen the relationships with the brand followers by executing branding in a fun way (Wildfire Social Media Marketing, 2013).

This article is referring to the simplified version of the Keller’s Brand Resonance Model, presented by Figure 1, which identifies five key, brand-building ‘’A’’ dimensions: brand awareness, brand association, brand attitude, brand attachment and brand activity (Keller, 2010). This model is helpful for understanding how channels, in this case social media, impact brands. Each of these components is to a greater or lesser extent influenced by social media, however, the attention will be directed only on two  particular dimensions: attitude and activity, which are believed to be exposed the most, out of all five dimensions, to the challenges and opportunities related to branding on social media.

Figure 1. Simplified version of Brand Resonance Model

Figure 1. Simplified version of Brand Resonance Model

Brand attitude

Interactive marketing that includes social media, can foster two types of attitude towards the brand – judgements and feelings (Keller, 2010). Brand judgements result from the customers’ interpretations of the brand’s performance and imagery and can refer to quality, credibility and superiority of the brand. On the other hand, feelings refer to the customers’ emotional reactions to the brand’s actions and communication and can stretch from positive to negative and differ in intensity (Keller, 2010).

The opportunities that emerge in relevance to brand attitudes on social media are related to the ‘’cognitive, affective and (..) behavioural effects on customer’’ (Keller, 2010, p. 60). In other words, social media enables brands to present what they are made of, what they stand for (Keller, 2010) and simultaneously convey more profound meaning behind the brand, hence humanize the corporation (Stokes, 2012).  Moreover, social media can serve as a crisis management tool as it allows monitoring the development of the customers’ attitudes and also competitive environment. Marketers can follow brand-related discussions on the networking sites and react once the negative publicity emerges, hence delaying or ceasing proliferation of the negative brand attitudes (Stokes, 2012).

For instance, the social media served VAA during ash cloud crisis in 2010 to update passengers in a real time  about the state of events (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). On another occasion, Virgin’s passenger complained on Twitter, using on board Wi-Fi, about undelivered meal. Once the ground team grasped that tweet, the cabin crew was contacted to resolve the complaint instantly (See why, 2010). The way VAA used the social media in those situations made the brand appear more caring and sympathizing with its passengers, fostered positive feelings and cultivated the judgement of reliability and quality about the brand.

By generating customers’ feedback and monitoring brand attitudes on social media, marketers can also adjust their strategy to make a brand more relevant and appealing (Yan, 2011). Furthermore, social media can effectively serve as a ‘’test bed’’- platform for testing risky decisions, due to its lower costs and risks, but also thanks to the immediate insights into reactions triggered by the particular decision (Stokes, 2012).

To benefit from abovementioned opportunities, marketers need to firstly beware of a few challenges that social media expose them to. Firstly, brands need to stay transparent and truthful, but even by doing so, they remain under permanent scrutiny and any negative brand–related news ‘’spread like wildfire’’  (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.198), thus can significantly weaken the brand when the criticism, parodies or anti-branding campaigns start to proliferate (Fournier & Avery, 2011, Krishnamurthy & Kucuk, 2009). In the online environment ‘’What happens in Vegas stays on You Tube’’ (Qualman, 2009 cited in Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.198). Hence, unfavourable UGC can only aggravate poor image making brands vulnerable (Keller, 2010; Varadarajan & Yadav, 2009).

Subsequently, another challenge facing brands is a loss of total control over the content published on social media (Keller, 2010; Winter, 2009). Marketers are no longer able to divinize the brand, suppress bad reviews and definitely cannot stop the spread of UGC, which could hinder the brand’s values (Christodoulides, 2009; Winter, 2009).

VAA  faced that challenge when 13 airline’s cabin crew members were openly discussing Virgin’s planes safety standards and were impolitely commenting on the airline’s passengers on facebook (Daily Mail, 2008; Bullas, 2010). Those employees were fired for ‘’bringing company into disrepute’’ (Freshnetworks, 2008) and the incident was criticised by VA’s spokesperson: “ (...) there is no justification for it (facebook) to be used as a sounding board for staff of any company to criticize the very passengers who pay their salaries” (State Bar of California, 2012, p.19).

Furthermore, the challenge lies in correct communication of the brand, which means being coherent in all ventures across all the channels. That further leads to the problem of managing and integrating intra- and inter-channel relationships (Kietzmann, Kemkens, McCarthy & Silvestre, 2011). The messages sent by the brand on multiple social touchpoints, need to be integrated in a way to complement one another, speak the same language, and represent the same values in order to be persuasive and authentic (Stokes, 2012), especially that marketers are today dealing with  customers who ‘’no longer want to be talked at’’ (Kietzmann et al., 2011, p. 250). Virgin Atlantic approached those challenges by initial recognition of personality of both, itself and its customers. Simon Bradley, VAA’s Vice President of Marketing  (Bradley, 2011) stated that : ‘’Virgin Atlantic is about fun, energy, pioneering, and a love of flying. We try to live through our brand when communicating with customer’’.

Brand activity

Keller (2010) describes brand activity as the frequency and intensity of customers’ brand loyalty identified in their purchases and engagement into a brand’s actions. Yet, the most prominent indicator is how much more  time, money and energy customers, are willing to invest to interact with the brand, beyond the purchase and usage of the branded products (Keller, 2010).

Brand activity is significantly aided by social media, which serve as a platform for disseminating information, providing entertainment  and creating experiences for customers. Constant connectivity, facilitated by mobile networking, intensified the brand encounters to a daily interaction. Effectively, social media contributes to strengthening relationships and creation of the virtual brand community (Keller, 2010; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012;  Varadrjan & Yadav, 2009; Naylor, Lamberton & West., 2012). Establishing a dialogue with the community members by marketers can result in growing brand interest and engagement (Keller, 2010;  Naveed, 2012). Within the communities, customers can observe each other’s commitment and loyalty to the brand and that in effect can encourage them to participate in the online activities to ‘’co-create their brand experiences’’ (Keller, 2010, p.62).

One of the tools to capture that opportunity for brand activity is storytelling. Especially in the open environment of social media, storytelling can impact customers’ roles making them not only passive listeners, but also active participants, narrators and co-creators  (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Fournier and Avery (2011, p.194) called this approach ‘’open source branding’’, which stands for the empowerment of customer’s voice in defining what the brand is, how it behaves or what it looks like.

VAA incorporated storytelling in its campaign called ‘’Looking for Linda’’ launched in 2011.The travels of the fictional Virgin’s flight attendant Linda, were followed by social media users around the world. The followers were guessing the places Linda was visiting, and those who were successful were further competing for tickets to one of VAA’s destinations (Virgin.com, 2013). Interestingly, Linda had her own facebook account and was communicating with fans, making 1,900 facebook friends throughout the venture’s lifetime. This social media project brought Virgin Atlantic a lot of followers and exactly 8,282 ‘’likes’’ (Wildfire Social Media Marketing, 2013).

Marketer-produced content on social media can encourage and facilitate UGC and electronic Word-of-Mouth, which serves as a measure of brand’s social media branding effectiveness  (Smith, Fisher & Yongjian, 2012). Hence, brand activity can be identified when customers create personalized brand experiences and propagate branded content via blogs, video-sharing, likes, posts or tweets, simultaneously increasing brand online visibility (Fournier & Avery, 2011). VAA attempted to foster brand activity via social media by announcing a competition for the VIP trip to Vancouver with Virgin’s CEO- Richard Branson, which required from the savvy-bloggers to explain in a tweet, post or video why would one want to go to Vancouver (Mckenzie, 2012).  As Kyle Thorne, Virgin’s Social Relations Manager explained: ‘’we’re keen to involve bloggers and social influencers to help share our excitement and spread the word online’’ (McKenzie, 2012).

However, the challenge mounts considering that the customers are those who define the ‘’rules of engagement’’ (Bradley, 2011). Therefore, marketers need to give the brand audience something of interest and value (Keller, 2010) and make them feel acknowledged (Yan, 2011). VAA used facebook to provide value to the Flying Club members. The airline launched a facebook application that provides real-time flight information, current offers and promotions (Airlines and destinations, 2009). Ultimately, brands become stronger when there is involvement and identification with the brand from its audience (Yan, 2011).

Recommendations for marketers

Certain recommendations for marketers emerge from the above discussion, which could facilitate overcoming the challenges and profiting from the opportunities to improve brand attitudes and activity using social media.

The main suggestion for companies is to carefully monitor its surroundings on social platforms: listen to the customers, observe competitors and embrace agility in doing business (Andzulis et al., 2012). Subsequently, the key to successful branding via social media is engaging content and a blueprint for its excellent execution leading to the content’s online diffusion (Fournier & Avery, 2011). The final suggestion refers to the marketers’ social media pro-activity in terms of reaching out to the customers (Smith et al., 2012). Silence on social media kills the brand by creating a brand-followers communication gap.  Hence, quality content and regular updates are fundamental in branding on social media.

Summarizing, social media requires from the marketers to develop a new marketing model that would acknowledge the conversational nature of social media, as this medium is here to stay and is increasingly growing in power.

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