This is absolute reality

When Absolute Radio brand director Chris Lawson took on the mission of turning the station into a national media brand – not just the new name for Virgin Radio – he started with a blank canvas. Caroline Parry discovers live music and digital technologies are central planks of his strategy

The opportunity to launch a new national brand is not one that comes around often, particularly in the radio market. With just three national commercial stations, the rebrand of Virgin Radio as Absolute Radio is a rare prospect for any marketer.

Chris Lawson, the brand director at Absolute, is facing just that opportunity and he is still only six weeks into the job. When he interviewed for the role after Virgin Radio had been acquired by Times of India subsidiary TIML, the new name had not even been decided.

“I was excited that it was going to be something different,” says Lawson. “It was a blank canvas but with a good base product.”

He says that the new team – led by chief executive Donnach O’Driscoll and chairman Clive Dickens – are “committed to creating a media brand” rather than simply rebranding the station and there is a five-year business plan that lays this out. There is a reported 15m of investment behind the brand, although it is not clear over what period of time this relates to.

“We are under no illusions. Absolute is just a name and it will be a big job to turn it into a brand,” he adds.

Classic Tracks

Lawson says Absolute will be about “real music”, whether discovering new music or remembering classic tracks. The positioning will be supported by an expansion of its playlist to include bands such as Kings Of Leon and Foo Fighters, and an increased focus on live music, including branded live events.

He adds it will also be about “squirm humour” – think Extras and Curb your Enthusiasm – and outlandish presenters, such as Tim Shaw, the Kerrang! DJ and self-styled “liberator of UK radio”.

But after 15 years as Virgin Radio, with its turbulent history and associations with Sir Richard Branson and former DJ and owner Chris Evans to get past, many industry experts are not yet convinced. One source says/ “I was shocked when I first saw it. It is early days but I had expected more.”

Lawson admits that reaction to the new name has been “mixed”. He explains: “Virgin is an iconic brand, but it stopped us from developing.”

With the largest online following of any UK radio station, Lawson has been keen to keep an open dialogue with its subscriber base and listeners, starting with the One Golden Square blog, which launched as the station was sold to keep listeners informed.

Digital Background

It is a strategy that aims to encourage listeners to come with the station as it changes, and one that replicates Lawson’s background in digital and customer relationship marketing. He joined Absolute from Bauer Media, where he was digital media director, and previously held roles in the telecoms, charity and retail sectors, including Safeway.

The shift to Absolute will start in earnest this week. On Friday (September 26), breakfast show host Christian O’Connell and a listener will fly to Munich with Coldplay for a live performance that night, an activity which aims to reinforce its live music credentials.

A major marketing campaign, created by Albion, will unfold from Monday across print and outdoor with a TV campaign to follow.

But perhaps unsurprisingly, given the station’s core listeners and Lawson’s background, a major part of its campaign will be digital. A viral, to be shot at the station’s HQ, will aim to offer a humourous glimpse of “everyday life” at Absolute.

The campaign, which is being developed with i-Level, aims to support above-the-line activity, while also taking the station to online listeners. This strategy encompasses a widget that can be added to social networking pages, contextual advertising on sites targeting music fans and the aim of generating “talkability” by pushing its content through blogs, forums and YouTube.

While Lawson believes Absolute will be a media brand rather than just a radio station in the long term, he is focused on the first obstacle. “We will have failed if Absolute is still just the new name for Virgin Radio in a year’s time,” he says. vVirgin territory The Virgin brand started life as a consumer champion. From taking on British Airways to the country’s train network and the most recent battle with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin has always claimed to deliver good value products and services. Branson, with his cheesy grin combined with Virgin’s marketing prowess, lent the brand name to everything from cola to cosmetics.

As it happens, Branson has had his fair share of failures. Virgin Rail lost its franchise to run the Cross Country network last year; attempts to run the National Lottery and more recently Northern Rock proved unsuccessful, while Virgin Cola failed to be a global success as hoped. Virgin Brides came to nothing and Virgin personal computers collapsed after less than a year.

Even Virgin Megastores rebranded to Zavvi following a management buyout a year ago. Analysts have said the retail business was losing money because the Virgin brand has lost its resonance with youth, hence the rebrand.

Virgin Radio, whose demise comes despite surviving for eight years since being sold by Chris Evans to SMG in 2000, will now be lost to the airwaves forever (although some predict its return as an online-only station). This follows the rebrand to Absolute Radio, after Times of India Group bought the station – but not the brand – from SMG this summer.

But as one Virgin brand disappears, another is born. The Virgin Atlantic Group is lining up a 2bn-plus bid for Gatwick Airport as part of the proposed break-up of the BAA.

Yet Branson, who made his first fortune in the music industry through his Virgin record label and megastore shops, has not been able to distance himself from the world of media.

When Virgin Media accused BSkyB of anti-competitive behaviour after it removed Sky One and other basic channels from the Virgin platform, it was known only as a fledgling cable company, hampered by the reputations of NTL and Telewest, the brands it replaced. It has since underscored its ambitions as an entertainment and communications company by claiming to be the UK’s largest residential broadband provider, the largest virtual mobile network operator and the second largest provider of pay-TV and home phone services.

It might be a while yet before the bearded buccaneer in a jumper and his brand pass their sell-by dates.

Sonoo Singh

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