The Marketing Profile: Paul Dickinson of Virgin Atlantic

Paul Dickinson, Virgin Atlantic
Paul Dickinson, Virgin Atlantic

There may not be a lot to smile about in the travel industry at the moment, but even among the wave of bankruptcies and bad PR, not to mention the lost luggage, a few brands have profited. Of course, no one was more pleased by the Heathrow Terminal 5 debacle, which seemed to sum up this industry malaise, than Virgin Atlantic.

Although he may try to hide it, there is a mischievous twinkle in the eye of Virgin Atlantic's portly sales and marketing director, Paul Dickinson, as he talks about the woes of arch rival British Airways.

As a former BA graduate trainee, the 45-year-old is well-placed to comment on the troubles that have seen it lose top marketers Tiffany Hall and Katherine Whitton.

Far from being sympathetic, Dickinson is keen to punish BA for its proposed alliance with American Airlines - which he claims is 'essentially a merger' - and has launched Virgin Atlantic's £3m 'No way BA/AA' campaign to block the deal at the regulators. Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has been in the media spotlight criticising the alliance, while the airline has also altered its planes' livery to carry the 'No way BA/AA' slogan.

'With the Virgin Atlantic brand, we've always tried to stand up for consumers' interests, and we believe that the proposed BA/AA deal is definitely not in their interests,' says Dickinson. 'It is anti-competitive and will give the two companies more control over price range. BAA is an example of a monopoly which wasn't effectively regulated and didn't work, and now BA wants to create another monopoly.'

The occasional scrap with BA is all in a day's work for a Virgin Atlantic marketing director. Dickinson, a former RAC marketer, relishes getting his hands dirty, and his infectious humour lends itself well to guiding the airline industry's biggest challenger brand.

The bungled T5 opening was particularly sweet for Virgin Atlantic, which had al-ready opened its own flagship Upper Class wing at Terminal 3. Dickinson claims his brand's intimate approach was the perfect antidote to the bombastic build-up to T5.

'If your main competition is being criticised publicly, it will help a bit, but we always want to put our best foot forward,' he says. 'We prepared to build our own T3 facilities six months ahead of T5, and when the problems arrived, a lot of people came over to Virgin Atlantic. We knew BA was going to go big with T5, so our strategy was to think how we could go small and get business customers through quicker.'

Other than press, outdoor and online ads promoting the airline's tie with Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond movie, the campaign for its Upper Class wing, which ran in May, is its most recent above-the-line push. It passed up the opportunity to roll out a large-scale autumn campaign, instead saving its £17m annual ad budget for a bigger splash in the traditional early-year booking period in 2009.

While keen to emphasise the importance of both economy and premium economy seating to Virgin Atlantic's strategy, Dickinson says future marketing will tend to focus on its Upper Class services, as he claims such campaigns create a 'halo' effect for the rest of the brand. It is certainly important for the airline to maintain its luxury image, given some damaging headlines in April as it ditched its famed beauty therapy offerings for Upper Class customers.

'We just had to find one small saving, and I think it was the right decision as we've had very little feedback on it,' says Dickinson. 'The one thing customers were most ambivalent about was beauty therapy. The therapists could never get to everyone, and on night flights people didn't want to be woken for treatment.'

The coming year will be a significant one for Virgin Atlantic. Plans are afoot for a celebratory campaign as the brand approaches its 25th anniversary in June, and observers are also eager to see how it copes with the looming recession. Dickinson admits he is unsure how the travel market will perform, but is cautiously confident 'We don't know how the market will play out, but there is some optimism. The interesting thing is going to be whether the January-February booking period will be as strong as usual. We think it will, as people are still committed to their main family holiday.'

Dickinson believes his brand needs to prepare for fierce market conditions and a strengthened BA. 'Right now there is an exodus of BA's senior management, so I don't know what the implications are, but I would expect them to get their act together,' he says. 'It's a massive brand, so we have to assume that at some point they will get it right, and act accordingly.'

He also agrees that Virgin Atlantic will need a greater global presence to survive in a consolidating market. Although the airline has added destinations in recent years, further routes are now on hold until the delivery of 15 Boeing 787 aircraft late next year. 'We would like to be seen as a more global brand,' he says. 'We have sister airlines, such as Virgin America, and if something could happen with bmi, we would be interested.'

In the days after German airline Lufthansa acquired an 80% stake in bmi last month, Virgin Atlantic's chief executive, Steve Ridgway, proposed to either buy bmi outright or merge its operations with Virgin Atlantic's to create a European super-carrier. Such a deal would give Virgin Atlantic unrivalled short-haul capabilities, and allow it to provide real competition to BA and Air France-KLM.

In the meantime, Dickinson must decide whether he wants to realign the brand's agency arrangements to create a more centralised system. Earlier this year, it was announced that Virgin Atlantic, which works with RKCR/Y&R in the UK, was considering the appointment of a global agency. A decision is due before the end of the year. 'We are not repitching; we are considering a communications model,' insists Dickinson. 'There is a strong argument in the Virgin world that lends itself to empowering local agencies, but there is also an argument for greater efficiency.'

It is such macro-economic and political issues that Dickinson claims keeps him excited about his job. 'Making money at an airline is one of the hardest things to do, and every time something happens - whether it's SARs, government policy or terrorism - it smashes into the airline industry. We are involved in big geopolitical debates, and it's absolutely intoxicating.'

So while marketers flee BA, Dickinson seems content to take his chances in the airline industry. So long as BA continues to slip up, you can bet he will be enjoying himself, too.

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