Do conservatives understand the workings of the marketplace they are so keen to extol?

Take the latest kerfuffle over so-called “censorship”, involving Virgin Trains and the Daily Mail. The former has said it will no longer stock or sell the latter, because of conflict with Virgin’s brand values. Cue outrage over free speech under attack.

Yet this will be no surprise to anyone who has ever sat in Virgin’s on-train loos and clocked the oh-so-witty message requesting users not to flush “nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish” down the toilet.

I can’t see that playing well with the core Mail reader. “We’ll have none of that postmodern nonsense in here!”

It doesn’t play too well with me, either. I have been known to wince visibly when confronted with the latest instance of Virgin “wit”, the travel equivalent of “wackaging” . But I get what it is doing. It has swallowed the branding handbook and is trying hard to create a unified customer experience.

Identify customer values. Align activities to values. It sounds plausible, even if it sometimes goes horribly wrong, as last week’s “cheeky chappie” response to a complaint of sexism made national headlines. Not the sort Virgin would have wanted.

It’s about detail: colour schemes and typefaces. It is also about intangibles: if Virgin were a sausage, what sort of sausage would it be? (I’m thinking something spicy and probably not very British). When it comes to sub-brands – the dozens upon dozens of products that Virgin stocks on its trains – this reduces to a very basic question: are they “one of us”?

If your target market consists of young, media-savvy millennials, does the Daily Mail fit your overall brand? Probably not. And not just because your target market doesn’t read it. Many of them do. Rather, it reflects the fact that recently the Mail appears to have returned to its pre-Leveson roots, and to have set upon a number of minorities, and especially trans people, with relish.

No matter what measure you choose – story selection, spin, language – it, alongside the Times, has been at the forefront of a particularly vicious and nasty anti-trans campaign. Why, then, the surprise that a generation broadly accepting of LGB and trans people returns hostility with hostility.

The Mail may not be attacking them directly: but it is attacking their friends and, if the response I have picked up over the past year from many in the trans community is typical, they are causing widespread grief: fear, alarm and distress. The Mail, like the Tory party, risks losing an entire generation of customers. It should not be surprised if Virgin acts in a hardheaded commercial fashion.

Then there is the attempt to shoehorn this into a free-speech narrative. This is the same logic fail as Boris Johnson condemning leftwing activists for “silencing” voices they dislike by persuading Paperchase and Pizza Hut to pull funding from hateful newspapers. Likewise, Jo Johnson’s attempt to foist approved speakers on students by threatening to fine universities that go along with student choice.

In both cases – all three, if you include the Mail’s accusing Virgin of censorship – they don’t understand the difference between the right to speak and the obligation to listen. I’d respect the Johnson brothers more if I started up the Fae Times – documenting the world as seen through the eyes of a slightly eccentric middle-aged cat lady – and they demanded that Virgin Trains stock it.

In the Mail’s case, simple commercial reality is being overlooked. As long as their product is designed to satisfy the demands of one niche group at expense of others, their chances of getting back on board the train are slight.

 Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on issues of political and sexual liberty

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One thought on “Virgin is not censoring the Daily Mail – hate just doesn’t match its brand identity

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