Nearing 50, Virgin has retreated significantly from Ireland
Richard Branson’s brand has little interests here as US expansion becomes the focus
Richard Branson with Gay Byrne launching Virgin Express flights from Ireland. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
As the Virgin brand prepares for its 50th birthday the name isn’t necessarily as prevalent as it once was in the Republic.
Were it not for the brand’s media interests, the Virgin name would be associated with the sales of vinyl and video casettes through the Megastores chain of retail outlets.
But the effervescent Richard Branson carries recognition in the Irish market, such that the Virgin brand alone attracts consumers. Globally, he’s a man with a raft of interests from galactic travel to trains, cruise ships and planes. In Ireland, his interests are few and far between.
Here, he’s now known for his broadband provision and the Virgin Media television outlet, formerly known as TV3.
But the brand name alone is as far as those interests go. Both the television channels and the broadband provider is owned by Liberty Global, a multinational telecommunications company owned by American billionaire John Malone. Having picked up Virgin Media in the UK, Malone’s company opted to ditch the UPC name in the Republic in favour of Branson’s Virgin brand.
And because Branson is such a household name, he is still involved in the marketing of Liberty’s media interests in Ireland although he doesn’t own the infrastructure that lies beneath the brand.
Irish consumers will likely be familiar with the company because of Virgin Megastores. At a time when condoms had to be obtained through prescription, Branson’s brand of retail stores sold the birth control over the counter, prompting demonstrations and ultimately leading to him appearing in court and being fined.
Although the brand’s financial fortunes aren’t worth recounting, Virgin Megastores became synonymous with the Irish high street, primarily through its flagship Aston Quay store in Dublin. Toward the end of its existence it opened in Dundrum Town Centre after shutting the doors of its Henry Street store. In 2007, Branson prudently off-loaded the retail group in a management buyout and the chain was subsequently rebranded as Zavvi.
Zavvi fell into administration in December the following year allowing HMV to effectively exercise a monopoly in the Irish music and DVD retail market.
Aside from TV, broadband and music interests, the Virgin brand has a link to Irish banker David Duffy. As chief executive of CYBG, Duffy led the acquisition of Virgin Money for about €1.9 billion in 2018. And while neither CYBG nor Virgin Money are active in the Republic, Duffy once was as chief executive of AIB.
Although Branson isn’t exactly active in the Republic, another way he’ll be known to consumers here is through the airline known as Virgin Atlantic. Those in the south may recall flights from Shannon to Stansted with Virgin Express, a company on which RTÉ broadcaster Gay Byrne was a board member.
Although Virgin Express ceases to exist, and while travellers in the Republic can’t expect to board a Virgin flight from Dublin, they can from Belfast (for seasonal summer routes) or fly into the UK to transfer.
And if they’re transferring between airports, they may very well end up on one of Branson’s trains.