Part Three; Being The Virgin Atlantic Of Public Space: Building A Sense Of Personality


Following on from our previous two blogs (Being the Burberry of Public Space: Building An Integrated Experience and Being The Nike + of Public Space: Building a Sense of Belonging) this is the last in our series exploring what city-makers might learn from the experience of our other clients – premium brands – about creating public places that inspire feelings of attraction, involvement and belonging.

So let’s start with a long-time client of ours, Virgin Atlantic, and look at what river-side development More London might learn from this trailblazing brand.

In the hugely competitive world of aviation brands, Virgin Atlantic – which is a relatively small airline with a fleet of around 40 planes compared, for example, to British Airway’s 268 aircraft – punches well above its weight, winning multiple awards year on year for exceeding customer expectations. But how?

As we have often maintained, VAA is a great example of how an Experience Vision founded on a deep understanding of the target audience’s ideal experience can lead an all-encompassing design methodology where the ‘humanware’ (the training of their crew as ‘Everyday Pioneers’), the ‘software’ (like VERA the in-flight entertainment) and the ‘hardware’ (the Upper-Class Lounges) all work in concert.

This guiding Experience Vision starts with the principles of – Personal Touches, Peace of Mind and Unexpected Delightful Moments – and is followed through in the moment by moment experience whether you are being chauffeur driven up the bond villain style ramp to the Upper-Class Lounge, turning over a cruet set that reads ‘Stolen from Virgin Atlantic’, receiving an impromptu ice lolly or seeing live stand-up comedy from a seat in Economy.

No wonder Mark Globe, in his book ‘Emotional Branding’ notes Virgin Atlantic’s success: “American Airlines has a strong identity, but Virgin Airlines has personality.”

What does this mean for the world of city-making? Why might ‘personality’ as opposed to ‘identity’ be an important differentiator for place, and ultimately better attract and involve people?


More London - Image Courtesy of Mace

Let’s have a look at More London, a development beside Tower Bridge on the banks of the Thames, quoting from Rowan Moore’s brilliant book ‘Why We Build’ for a little inspiration:

“From its inception, More London was billed as a new concept, a piece of city conceived as a branded product rather than a place.

This is why it has its odd name, so unlike the sort of names urban districts usually have, dreamed up by image consultants. ‘more-london’, as it is sometimes written (fused, lower case, web-friendly) conflates the title of the company, the place, the product, and the marketing concept.

When it was being built large billboards went up showing construction workers erecting giant ice creams and dumbbells with, as good marketing practice demands, tag lines tied into the brand:

Lick More. Enjoy the flavour: one taste and you’ll want more.

Pump More. With a gym and fitness centre it’s a great place to work in – and work out.’

The licking, pumping billboards suggested a sensual intensity at More London which, although you can indeed buy ice creams there, is not really on offer.”

But despite these good intentions (and the hype), More London could be considered a failure in so many ways as it fails to differentiate or seduce.

You would be hard pressed to ‘see’, ‘feel’ or ‘do’ anything different here than in any other over-corporate, anti-personal, dead-zone across the city.

Overflowing with Prets, Eats and Cafe Nero types – this is a Lesser London surely!

More London, like many other property developments around the world, mistakes identity for personality, wrongly imagining a place as a brand, rather than a place as an experience. And this is crucial, because a ‘brand identity’ is essentially a thing of authority and control, whereas an Experience Personality (as Virgin Atlantic have demonstrated so strikingly) is a holistic, human-centred approach, built on a deep behavioural understanding of people, that embraces and deploys the widest range of multi-faceted elements that make places successful across time.

There is much to learn from this!

So how might we use the learnings of Virgin Atlantic to help the More Londons, More Singapores and More Sydneys of the world?


Virgin Atlantic Airlines Storyboard- Image Courtesy of FreeState

Here are three simple overlapping lessons for city-makers wishing to build a sense of personality:

1. ‘HUMANWARE’ – Build A Sense Of Relevance By Understanding Behaviour (Not Plotting Demographics!)

Imagining the human-centered story by firstly understanding people’s behaviours and enthusiasms.


2. ‘SOFTWARE’ – Build A Sense Of The Moment By Curating Journeys (Not Designing Destination!)
Designing the narrative experience to better attract and involve people, and to constantly activate all the elements of place.


3. ‘HARDWARE’ – Build A Sense Of Place By Creating Experience-First Places (Not Environment-First Places!)

Directing the experience place to enable the ideal programme, inspiring moment-by-moment meaning and a deep sense of belonging for people.


Experience Personality, expressed as these three overlapping drivers of ‘humanware’, ‘software’ and ‘hardware’, is what we believe sets Virgin Atlantic apart from the crowd, ensuring that they inspire feelings of attraction, involvement and belonging.

It is exactly this Experience Personality that is sorely lacking in so many developments like More London, which uses a post-rationalised Brand Identity to distract us from the fact that they forgot to consider the experience as the foundation of all that was to follow, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s begin as Virgin Atlantic does, with the People and the Programme, and use this understanding to drive the creation of new Experience Places!


About the Writer – Adam Scott

Adam is Founder and Executive Creative Director for pioneering Experience Masterplanners FreeState, he is Global Head of Design at leading international design practice HASSELL. He is internationally recognised as an expert in experience design and is personally responsible for storyboarding some of the world’s greatest brands and stands at the forefront of a very modern and multi-sensory wave of experience design for cities. 

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