Virgin Blue, Fool’s Gold and the Woods’ Principle

Most people will now have heard about Virgin Blue’s email problems. On Friday Virgin sent an email advising recipients that they had been upgraded to Gold Frequent Flyer status. Unfortunately the email was sent to the entire customer database, the vast majority of whom hadn’t actually been upgraded to Gold status.  Which meant Virgin Blue then had to send an email to everyone apologising for the error and advising that they hadn’t actually been upgraded.

Gold announcement

Gold retraction

Which was mildly annoying to those who fleetingly joined the Gold ranks, really unfortunate for the Virgin Blue team involved and genuinely depressing for those who have watched the response of the self-righteous, self-appointed, social-media jury.

It was an unfortunate and genuine mistake on Virgin’s part.  It was corrected quickly.  I doubt enough time lapsed for anyone to do anything significant in the belief they had become a Gold member (three hours passed between the two emails I received). Perhaps Virgin could have been more fulsome in its apology. And maybe describing it as an IT error might have sounded a little like the old “technical error” excuse that implies ‘it’s really not our fault’.

But I think the broader response is definitely the more interesting issue.

The first comments after Mumbrella covered the story were these:

Amy commented – I got this! And was soo excited. Totally let down when the next email arrived. I think they should have to honour these. If it was a competition then they’d be liable so why not now?

BD followed with - I agree with Amy — on my blog, I’ve even floated the idea of a class action. The very least they could do is give us all a free Lounge pass for onetime use so we can briefly enjoy what they promised was ours.

This was balanced by a more considered response, of which this response was typical:

Steph said – I think this is the perfect portrayal of the greedy people consumerism has made many. I am sure in all of your own lines of work you have experienced error and perhaps even been at fault? This was a simple technical error and as mentioned above – you didn’t earn the gold status, you had nothing ‘taken away from you’ so therefore you are not entitled to it. Move forward…

There are three points I find interesting here:

You are judged by your category

There’s no doubt that in the last few years the airline category has set reasonably low standards for customer service – cancelled flights, unhelpful call centres, dracononian booking regulations, exorbitant excess baggage charges etc etc.  Many would suggest that only airlines rival telcos and banks in delivering a consistently disappointing customer experience.

But not, in my experience, Virgin Blue.  It’s a relatively new player. It’s added a healthy competition to the market.  It’s been a bit cheeky and poked fun at the lumbering competition. It’s done what it promised to do, and made its way into countless agency ‘brands we admire’ presentations as a result.

But now Virgin’s made a mistake it’s being judged based on the disappointments of the category, not the previous behaviour of Virgin Blue.

Social Media lacks a safety valve

I bet there are a whole lot of people feeling a little foolish about how worked up they got over this. Like Amy and BD above. The people who immediately began talking about class actions, boycotts, liability and compensation.  The people who couldn’t see the genuineness of the mistake in their haste to find culprits (and clutch at personal benefit).

Which highlights the risk of Social Media. How many opinions were shared that people now wish they could recant? How many people were caught up in the groundswell, mounting the nearest high horse to express their outrage at this egregious behaviour?

There’s real danger in both immediacy and habit.  Social Media present us with this wonderful opportunity to share opinion about pretty much anything quickly and widely.  Which sometimes isn’t great when that opinion is hastily formed.

People are also very used to sharing opinions about pretty much everything. We’re in the habit of doing it a dozen times a day. The risk is that we’re losing the distinction between our thoughts on a movie and proposing class actions.  We’re in the habit of saying what we think, less inclined to think about what we say.

Because with Social Media there’s no safety valve of time, no in-built delay.  As you think it you can say it, and a lot of people, and brands, are exposing themselves.

Which is why I think it’s to Virgin Blue’s credit that it hasn’t overreacted.  It’s apologised – via email, via its website – and for the moment that seems to be it. A sensible, measured response.

Now comes the opportunity

So now what does Virgin Blue do?  As a brand it has a reputation for being honest and not taking itself too seriously.  Now feels like the perfect time for both.

Virgin Blue has the opportunity to use the category to its advantage.  Because having said earlier that its mistake was judged based on people’s expectations of the category, so too will its response be.

When it launched, Virgin Blue created space between it and the competition.  But it’s a challenge to maintain that distance. Over time the gap naturally closes – your competitors get better (often by very specifically following your example, copying your innovations) and almost inevitably you become distracted, less focused and, almost inevitably, less good.

Let’s call it the Woods’ Principle, so named for Tiger.  When he arrived on the scene he set a new benchmark for performance, based, in large part, on discipline and fitness. And others watched, learned and closed the gap. But he’s since re-opened the gap a couple more times. What I think’s interesting is that it’s often been injury that’s been the impetus for him taking another leap forward.  He gets hurt and has something to recover from.  The injury forces a response and it reminds him of what he wants to be. Injury is a powerful catalyst.

The Woods’ Principle applied to Marketing would simply say that a brand often benefits from a problem, simply because problems force a brand to focus in a way that consistent success doesn’t.   Problems are a powerful catalyst. They present another opportunity to demonstrate what makes the brand different from the category.

Which suggests that this problem could be great for Virgin Blue.  The competition had been closing the gap. This problem gives it a focus and a chance to reassert itself, to remind itself of what it wants to be. This problem could be the catalyst for proving again why Virgin Blue’s different.

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About Philip O'Neill
Too much time spent thinking about clothes, advertising and music. And golf.

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