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Ever wondered how we come to work with some of the fantastic brands that we partner with across the airline? Meet Nikki Jeffery and Charles Vine, our Brand Alliances team, who are always on the hunt for the most interesting and innovative brands around, to make your journey just that little bit more exciting...
What does the Brand Alliance team do?
Nikki: Charles and I are the Brand Alliances team in its entirety, and what we do is try to find like-minded brands to partner with, so we can build fruitful, long-term marketing relationships, bring revenue into the airline and try to save costs across the business too.
Everything we do is about the passenger - they're our number one priority with every brand we work with and keeping that principle absolutely at the forefront is the key to the success of our partner relationships. We also make sure that our partners' own sales, marketing and PR objectives are met, but the work we do is always most about the benefits we can bring to the passenger.
If there's a potential opportunity for a brand to work with Virgin Atlantic, do you prefer to approach them yourselves?
Charles: It always works best if we do the approaching, because we tend to have in mind a slot or a service or an opportunity that we'd like to fill, and the question I tend to ask, despite being a really rubbish dancer, is 'Would I want to dance with them at the disco?' Is the chemistry good when we go and talk to them? We have a pretty good idea in advance of what will work and what won't so it just works best for us when we're the ones initiating the conversation.
We obviously do get many people who approach us directly which is only to be expected, and occasionally this has resulted in a beneficial relationship for both parties. But one of the challenges we have is managing the expectations of the sheer number of brands who approach us thinking they have a synergy with Virgin Atlantic when in reality they might not always share the same values and goals. So in the end, it works better all round if we're the ones making the first move.
Can you give us an example of what might lead the Brand Alliances team to seek out a new partner? Is there always another department involved or do you come up with the ideas yourselves?
Charles: It's a complete mixture. It's a slightly odd discipline, because it's partly creative, partly strategic, partly sales-driven and partly marketing. The ideal scenario would be if we could sit in a tiny helicopter hovering above all of Virgin Atlantic's internal departments as they're working, seeing exactly how we could fit another brand in to help solve any internal challenges and excite our passengers at the same time.
For example, when we know that our Inflight Services team are working on a new Food & Beverage offering, we can get in early and start seeking out the kinds of innovative products that we think our passengers would appreciate. For a lot of these brands, who are often not huge when they first start working with us, getting their products onboard can be a great experiment in terms of product development. In a way, once you get your products in the hands of the consumer, the plane almost becomes a flying marketing laboratory, and brands like Gü, who supply some of our onboard desserts, completely recognise that and it's been extremely successful for them. They've been happy to admit that their overall success has quite a bit to do with their association with Virgin Atlantic.
Nikki: And sometimes it's as simple as Charles or I just seeing something new on the shelves over the weekend and thinking, wow - that's fantastic, that would work really well in-flight. And that might spark a conversation. I think passengers expect us to show them new brands. It's part of our brand identity to do that, and it also makes their experience more fun. I would even say that what we do is an extension of onboard entertainment in a way.
We once ran a competition to design a new sickbag, and the winners were featured onboard. Some people from Lucasfilm were flying with us one day, saw the bags and loved the idea so much that they contacted us and said they'd like to do their own limited edition Star Wars bag, which was a fantastic campaign for us, a great brand to hook up with, and the PR it generated for both of us was enormous.
Do our brand alliances mainly result in new products on board our planes, in our clubhouses, or in other areas?
Charles: It's wherever in the entire customer journey the passenger would benefit most from being exposed to that brand. So it really can be anywhere, and we have to keep our perspective really broad. It could be sickbags, it could be an announcement, it could be putting fake grass in the toilets - literally anything, if it's deemed to benefit the passenger.
Nikki: We always try to make sure that what we do is relevant. So you might receive an ice-cream onboard with a Pearl & Dean wrapper, and it's served to you when you're watching a film. Obviously Pearl & Dean are associated with a cinema audience, but during a movie is a fun and appropriate time to serve ice-cream. So it's advertising, but it's done in a very subtle way and most of the time passengers don't necessarily recognise it as being advertising at all. They're often just happy to be getting a little something extra during their flight.
Can you tell us about some of the things you've been working on recently?
Charles: At the moment we're talking to Avid, the edit suite specialists, about putting a professional edit suite into the Clubhouse and we've recently been going through some of the designs for that. This is almost the ultimate service to have available in the Clubhouse. Although it does have a fairly narrow appeal, it's such an impressive service to be able to offer, and we do get a very large amount of professional creatives - musicians, filmmakers, sound engineers, broadcast editors - passing through.
One of the more unique things we did recently was a tie-up with Gibson Guitars - we had a display of beautifully crafted Gibsons in the Clubhouse, and every weekend, guitar masterclasses were given in the Sky Lounge where the acoustics are great, and it was incredibly well received.
And one of our longest running and most successful brand alliances is with Bacardi, which is where we began our relationship with Marc Plumridge, our Flying Barman, who vtravelled blog readers will already know from his insider's guides to the best cocktail spots in many of our destinations. We have an extremely exciting new development with Bacardi coming up soon, which is going to be absolutely fantastic so watch this space...
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be doing this?
Nikki: I've been at Virgin Atlantic coming up for twenty years now. I've been doing this role for about eight years, and before that I managed the agencies who sold advertising on our behalf before we brought it all in-house. Before that I had a number of different roles at the airline including sales and product development, and a stint in the Onboard Media department.
Charles: I trained as a lawyer and I hated it so much that I went straight into advertising, and I worked in the industry for 20-something years in London and New York. When I came back from the States I went to work for a company who dealt exclusively with airlines, and of all the ones I worked with, my favourite was always Virgin Atlantic. That's when I first met Nikki, and after doing that for a number of years I came onboard with the airline and it's been by far the most fun role I've ever had.
Finally, what are some of your favourite Virgin Atlantic destinations and what do you recommend doing there?
Nikki: My favourite destination has to be San Francisco. The first time I visited, I thought 'I could live here'. I love everything about it; the culture, the laidback vibe, the fact there's just so much to see and do. The only thing that's not so great is the weather... the sea mist rolls in really quickly. But I love cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, having lunch at the fantastic seafood restaurant Scoma's, visiting Alcatraz which I think is one of the best tours anywhere in the world, and just generally exploring the neighbourhoods. I also really enjoy Miami for a beach holiday and a bit of relaxation, and New York for a long weekend. Bubby's in Tribeca is a great place for brunch in NYC and the Blue Fin at the bottom of the W hotel in Times Square is fantastic for cocktails and people watching.
Charles: For me it's got to be New York because I used to live there and I really miss it, and still feel homesick for it even now. I lived in New Jersey, which I also loved, especially places like Cape May on the Jersey Shore, but spent most of my time working in Manhattan, hanging in out in original old bars like the Ear Inn and running alongside the Hudson River. I also love St Lucia and Barbados for a beach holiday and I'm looking forward to returning one day to get to know them better.
To experience some of our fantastic brand alliances, book a flight to one of our great destinations - visit virginatlantic.com for the the very best deals on fares.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.