Virgin Atlantic was planning the launch of its new fully reclining business-class seats when the PR department realized it had two challenges to overcome.First, the business-travel market had declined more than 20% in the past year, which made competition for those remaining business travelers more fierce than ever. Second, other carriers had recently upgraded their own business classes with versions of fully reclining seats. Added to that was the fact that the official launch of the new product was taking place in London. However, the two-person US PR team was not deterred.
"We wanted to get the message out there that we have the best and biggest business class, [as well as] the most innovative," says Virgin Atlantic PR manager Wendy Buck.
Her team put together an ambitious campaign that targeted TV and print media with a variety of angles, all aimed at helping Virgin keep its reputation as a leader of innovation and comfort.
Buck says a major part of the strategy was explaining how Virgin's seats were superior to other products. Unlike some seats that "slide down," she says, Virgin's have a new technology that allows fliers to flip their seats 180 degrees into a fully flat bed with a foam mattress, duvet, pajamas, and turndown service. However, the seat is hard to visualize.
"That's why we chose television" as a focus of the campaign, explains Buck. "It's hard to write about it and understand it unless you can visually see it flip over."
The team also concentrated on finding unusual angles to take the story beyond the travel media. For example, Buck pitched the story to Popular Science as an innovation in aviation technology. The magazine was so impressed with the seats that it gave them a "Best of What's New" award, giving Buck yet another promotional opportunity.
Knowing that strong visuals were key to the success of the campaign, the PR team in London created an event where Virgin head Richard Branson cut up a British Airways Club World seat with a chain saw. Along with b-roll of the new suite, that footage was pitched to US outlets. American media were also invited to the event.
The new product was then pitched to programs such as Today and CNBC's Squawk Box, both of which attract an important target audience of business travelers, explains Buck.
In addition, the new business-class service was pitched for product placement in reality shows and garnered a segment in the film Calendar Girls and on NBC's American Princess.
Buck also used the Popular Science award to showcase the product at a two-day event sponsored by the magazine at New York's Grand Central Terminal, where more than 70 travel and aviation media outlets turned out. "The key thing was once we won the award, we wanted to capitalize on it," she says. "We wanted to take this award and use it to really get to a lot of other media."
"We were extremely happy," says Buck. "Once the stories about the suite started to flow from publications like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, that started stories flowing among media in general."
Virgin won hits on major media, including Today, and was featured throughout a special daylong travel show on Squawk Box. That's in addition to hundreds of other hits.
More important, passenger booking numbers for business/ upper class over the last 10 months are 30% higher than they were the year before, Buck reports, adding that they significantly exceeded budget targets. This rise, she says, can be traced back to the PR effort because the ad campaign did not kick off until April. Virgin's market share also increased from 14% to 18% in the business-class market, Buck adds.
Buck and her team are still busy promoting the new suite. She is planning events in LA and San Francisco for the near future. The team is also inviting journalists to try the new seats as it continues looking for new promotional angles.
"We're constantly trying to find new ways to build media exposure around the suite," Buck says.
PR team: Virgin Atlantic Airways USA (Norwalk, CT)
Campaign: Virgin Atlantic Rebrands Upper Class
Time frame: July 2003 to present (ongoing)