What's the value of a recognized brand, in marketing?
One might want to ask Richard Branson. Forbes rated him as the world's 236th richest person earlier this year; having started his first businesses as a teen-ager, the serial entrepreneur went on to form Virgin Group, which is now some kind of transcontinental octopus entangled in everything from airlines to health clubs. (I should know about the latter, having just come home from one.)
Of course, if you slap a well-known brand — and Virgin is probably one of the best-known brands in the British business space — on a sub-standard product, you risk damaging it. Virgin was built on record stores and then a successful airline that competed on quality with British Airways, the national flag-carrier, rather than with the budget airlines. For the first twenty years or so it was a quality brand — stylish, customer-savvy, a luxury item. But recently, things have begun to go wrong.
Probably the first sign of the rot setting in came in 1997, when Virgin acquired the Inter City West Coast and Cross Country elements of the British Rail network. These trains weren't virgins — they were comprehensively fucked, the cumulative consequence of a decade of Tory under-investment. Virgin Rail became the instant butt of a number of cruel jokes, and the rolling stock they bought to replace the clapped-out kit didn't improve things; flashy, glitzy, comfortable carriages configured in three classes (nose-bleedingly gold-plated, outrageously expensive, and cattle-class) with insufficient room to carry the passenger load. The idea of running smaller, more frequent trains would have been a good one if they'd been able to make it work reliably, but in the absence of track and station infrastructure to support it, things didn't work well.
Since then, things have gone downhill fast. Around 1997, the UK installed a cable TV and cable internet infrastructure. Digging up hundreds of thousands of streets is expensive, so two limited-term regional monopolies were granted to cable operators, NTL and Telewest. After a while they began rolling out broadband internet on their networks (around 2000, if memory serves), and underwent the harsh learning curve associated with becoming an ISP. Then something obvious happened. In 2006, the two loss-making cablecos merged to form one mammoth blundering mess, NTL/Telewest. And also in 2006, the new hybrid purchased Branson's Virgin Mobile brand (then a cellphone franchise) and began the process of rebranding, from February 2007, as Virgin Media.
Read my lips: Virgin Media are so awful that I'm leaving them and I encourage you to do likewise.
Reasons they're awful? Let me give you a list. To start with, I didn't much pay attention when they announced that they were going to start charging by the minute for telephone support calls. After all, I'm competent to configure my own broadband router; I don't need my hand holding, right? Well, I've changed my mind.
It appears highly likely that Virgin are probing the equipment you attach to your cable modem and dropping packets destined for broadband routers. I noticed this when my otherwise-reliable Apple Airport Extreme began falling off the net with increasing frequency; I replaced it. Imagine my surprise when the replacement unit began exhibiting identical symptoms? Some annoying (and expensive) support calls later, I plugged the iMac on my desk straight into the CM, and waited ... and the connection proved solid. So I switched on internet sharing and fed the connection through to the rest of the household and ... the connection remained solid. I've now compared notes with several other owners of broadband routers and they all confirmed the same phenomenon: plug a router into a Virgin cable modem and it exhibits signs of instability, but switch to a PC or Mac or Linux box (running NAT, so it's doing the job of a router) and the cable connection stabilized.
(I've been keeping a lid on this because I haven't had time to verify beyond any possible doubt that I hadn't simply bought two dead Airports in a row and then suffered from selection bias in the folks I've been comparing notes with ... but I figure if this is a genuine problem, some of you will also have experienced it and will let me know.)
And then there's Phorm. Virgin is one of three mainstream ISPs (the other notables are British Telecom and Carphone Warehouse, but the latter backed out hastily) who were announced to be talking to Phorm about letting the spyware company snoop on their customers' internet connections, probably in violation of the Computer Misuse Act and in violation of the customers' right to privacy. Phorm is a nasty piece of work, and while I'm not surprised at a large faceless customers-are-a-commodity organization buying into their business model I'm startled that the owners or franchisees of the Virgin brand should be seemingly oblivious to the damage they've been doing to their good name.
And now there's a third strike against Virgin Media.
"In an interview with the Royal Television Society’s Television magazine, far from covering up their intentions, Virgin Media’s new incoming CEO Neil Berkett - who joined the Virgin Media Board just a few days ago - has launched an attack on the ideas and principles behind net neutrality.
“This net neutrality thing is a load of bollocks,��? he said, adding that Virgin is already in the process of doing deals to speed up the traffic of certain media providers."
More on this here and here. The arguments on net neutrality are complex, but what they boil down to is this: Virgin believe they've got the right to control the speed of your cable connection, and they'll give you rapid access only to content provided by big companies that have paid them to provide access. Everything else can take "the bus lane", to use Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett's charming turn of phrase. Got that? If Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation or advertisers like DoubleClick want to stuff their propaganda down your throat, they can give their friend Neil a back-hander and he'll fix things for them. But if you want to go off the beaten track and look at stuff that's not commercial you're on your own.
There's a pattern of abuse becoming evident here. Virgin Media have adopted the toxic and ultimately suicidal view that they own their customers — a captive audience who can be exploited in any way they deem reasonable. Throttle their bandwidth, demand payments for access, charge 'em for support calls, decide what equipment they may or may not connect to the network — because Virgin are the national cableco monopoly (and where was the Monopolies and Mergers Commission when this poisonous conglomerate was being formed?).
Richard Branson ought to sue the fukcers for damaging his trademark.
As for me, all I'm looking for is a suitable replacement TV service and I'm outa here. (For broadband, I'm probably going to these people, who I am informed are a decent old-fashioned internet service provider without delusions of grandeur or monopoly megalomania. And on the TV front, I just need to figure out a way of getting the Discovery Channel without putting a satellite dish on my roof, which I can't do because of local planning restrictions.) If you're a Virgin subscriber, I advise you to do likewise. And if they give you any shit over getting out of your contract early, refer them to the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (specifically Schedule 2 of terms that may make a contract unfair: 1(j) enabling the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract unilaterally without a valid reason which is specified in the contract; (k) enabling the seller or supplier to alter unilaterally without a valid reason any characteristics of the product or service to be provided; ... both of which Virgin Media seem to fall foul of.