Written by Dave on 12 May 2015 - views may not reflect those of other Save East Coast Rewards contributors.

This is my response to the article in Aberfield on 12 May 2015: Can Virgin’s East Coast comms strategy continue to build momentum or will it hit the buffers?

Any loss of momentum of the Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) comms strategy is in my mind all of their own doing. VTEC is not a new company (its legal name is still East Coast Main Line Company Ltd same as it was prior to the Stagecoach/Virgin takeover), they inherited everything from the government owned Directly Operated Railways.

They inherited the brand 'East Coast' which was built up from nothing to one that won many industry awards and was generally highly regarded by passengers, the social media team were well loved by their customers, we had a loyalty scheme that was best in the UK, a "Feel at Home" ad campaign that many could relate to (and I still do when I step onboard a VTEC train). East Coast was a company that seemed to understand their customer, and most important, understand loyalty.

I think most people were willing to go in to the Virgin franchise with an open mind, after all, Virgin isn't generally considered a bad brand and I'm sure Richard Branson would not want to see his brand fail on the East Coast as it's a high profile franchise.

However, things started going sour even before they took over.

East Coast in January sent out a statement stating that the East Coast Rewards scheme would be closing on the 1st March and would be replaced with a choice of Nectar or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Being familiar with Nectar is what prompted myself and a colleague to set up Save East Coast Rewards which was initially just a Twitter campaign and a very basic website. When more details of Nectar were revealed closer to launch time our numbers grew as people started to realise what a terrible deal they were getting.

To make things worse, those with season tickets or booked through business travel agents would now get absolutely nothing.

However I was in York on 1st March 2015, the first day of VTEC operation, and I actually started feeling warmer towards the brand. For some reason there weren't any chocolates or celebrations on day one but there were some posters that showed to me that they respected the history of the line and all the hard work done by the previous East Coast team. Basically they were standing on the shoulders of giants, building upon great things.

The poster in York said:

Still flying the Scotsman

The East Coast Main Line has an important piece in British history; record breaking, imagination fuelling and nation changing. We're focused on our future, but we promise to respect our past.

Welcome to Virgin Trains East Coast, the start of an amazing journey

and an even nicer one in Kings Cross acknowledged the excellent work of East Coast:

Great people, greater things

We've seen what East Coast have achieved over the last few years, a true railway success story. We're not here to change that, but to add to it. Building something great for the future, together

Welcome to Virgin Trains East Coast, the start of an amazing journey

A key point of that poster was that they weren't here to change it but to build on the success. Basically Virgin Trains East Coast intended to be like East Coast, only better.

Things started to go downhill when they rolled out Richard Branson on the 3rd March 2015. I took offense to his comments in the Northern Echo saying that he wanted to make the East Coast sing like the West Coast. The article gave the impression that the East Coast staff were demoralised and the trains were not fit for service. This isn't the East Coast that we all were happy to 'Feel at Home' in. It wasn't the East Coast VTEC described as a 'true railway success story'. It was Virgin trying to get credit for revolutionising the East Coast Main Line, we already had high satisfaction scores and the trains in 2018 were going to whoever won their franchise. It was becoming clear that Virgin added no value to the East Coast brand at all, it just gave Branson a chance to brag if it's a success.

The £10m ad campaign added further insult to passengers. In was more in your face, not nice and friendly like those earlier posters and interestingly enough helps fuel the confusion between Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast. Although I know a few people who like the ads, most people I've asked think they're money well wasted and the more humble approach adopted only days before was preferable.

At least the ad campaign was easy to spoof:

Worth £10m?

So what about social media? It's the same well liked team as ran @eastcoastuk and apart from ignoring most genuine questions about the loyalty scheme is pretty much the same as it was previously. They have tried to make the feed have more of a Virgin feel by cross promoting other brands and having #VirginFamily 'love ins' but they didn't go down too well and have mostly stopped.

Another poor example of communications is the branding. The one on the west is called Virgin Trains (no West Coast suffix) and the one on the east is called Virgin Trains East Coast (although the £10m ads refer to them as Virgin Trains). If you tweet an East Coast question to @VirginTrains you'll be directed to @Virgin_TrainsEC or vice versa. If you inadvertantly book an East Coast ticket on virgintrains.co.uk there'll be no Nectar points or online discount for you! Compare this to National Express who had back in the days of National Express East Coast and East Anglia used a single booking engine for both of them and also had the rail booking form on the same homepage as their coach services on nationalexpress.com.

Conclusion

Virgin Trains East Coast is still somewhere I 'feel at home' when on board. The service in first class is still the best around. However, it's just as good and not yet better. Therefore as customers we had a downgrade from day one with the termination of East Coast Rewards. To put it in Virgin language they've already removed some of the East Coast sparkle. There's a lot of sparkle left, so let's see if they can build upon it.

So far improvements all seem in the distant future. Even those much promotedd bean to cup coffee machines won't arrive until August 2016. They can't blame modifications to the buffet area because the buffet area was designed with space for a coffee machine, GNER used to have bean to cup coffee. Free WiFi for all was originally promised too and never happened. I'm really struggling to see what benefits Virgin Trains East Coast are bringing us over what we already had.

Errors in the Aberfield blog posting

"VTEC is operating in a largely negative media environment where many are looking for it to fail." We don't believe that to be the case. Unfortunately a lot of press seem to be willing to lap up statements from Virgin without digging deeper, for example the claim of reintroducing freshly cooked breakfasts in First Class even though they've been complimentary since 2011 and paid for prior to that. There's been relatively few negative articles regarding the rewards scheme despite the fact that it was Britain's most generous loyalty scheme. I've not seen any press pull them up on not delivering free WiFi to all. Generally I think Virgin has received an easy ride from the press.

"[press] carried pieces highlighting passengers claiming they are struggling to find low enough prices" Seems fair enough to me, but I've only seen the Daily Mirror article, although the impression here is all press are out to get them! Although it's difficult to prove as VTEC deny they've reduced the number of cheap fares, the number of people paying more seems to suggest there's some merit in the claims. In fact prior to launch VTEC promised to increase the number of cheaper advance fares available.

Will the same amount of cheap advance fares still be available?

Yes absolutely. In fact, where we have capacity on trains, we’ll ensure there are even more advance fares available.

"Besides a raft of red posters marking the start of Virgin’s £10m above-the-line marketing activity, new livery and new staff uniforms..." A good example that the author of this article has never set foot inside a VTEC train. The uniforms are still East Coast, they won't be changing in the short term. Although it doesn't say this it does give the impression the new livery is rolled out, of course we know it takes longer than that.

Also the picture in the article supposedly of the £10m ad campaign isn't at all, it's one of the much nicer posters I was talking about at the introduction. The £10m ad posters all have the SHOUTY style to them.

"The first two months has been a period of bedding in, with the new operator implementing services, getting up to speed and getting to know staff." As it was an amicable takeover (the government wanting to privatise the company) the management were already getting up to speed before launch. The MD, David Horne, was travelling round meeting the staff in February before the franchise started.

"The new custodians of the franchise did a lot of shouting before they won the contract and, after a low key start, it will be interesting to see what they have planned." Actually they didn't seem to do that much shouting before they started the franchise. The usual press quotes, but nothing significant. The feeling was there'd be no changes in the short term except for Nectar. The shouting didn't begin until after the franchise began first by Richard Branson and then the £10m ad campaign.