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Steve Hilton’s trouble with fat cats and underdogs | Stefan Stern

The policy guru thinks that Virgin Atlantic is an ‘upstart’. His confusion is Branson’s PR triumph

Before boarding a flight on my favourite upstart airline Virgin Atlantic, I usually down a can of lager brewed by that plucky Danish start-up, Carlsberg. Then it’s off for a cheeseburger from my alternative fast-food chain of choice, McDonald’s.

It’s all relative, I suppose. Steve Hilton’s description of Virgin as an “upstart”, in contrast to the “fat cat” British Airways, relayed in a piece in Standpoint magazine this week, has caused some eyebrows to be raised. Virgin Atlantic had a turnover of £2.4bn in its last financial year. It is 51% owned by the Virgin Group, with the remaining 49% being in the hands of that other minnow, Singapore Airlines.

The prime minister’s policy guru has fallen into the trap that lies in wait for all PR executives – believing the hype. But the faux humility of Sir Richard Branson has lured many of his competitors into ill-advised complacency. Lord King, the former BA boss, admitted that he failed to take Branson as seriously as he should have done. It was those jumpers. Had he shown up in a suit he would obviously have meant business.

Branson’s triumph has been to preserve the image of being a maverick, and an underdog, even while he has been sitting on top of a gigantic international business. We must hope the PM is getting rather more acute advice in regard to the other senior figures he has to deal with.

This is an era of brands, labels and image. It should not be surprising if a multibillion-pound business can still portray itself – and be seen as – edgy, or ”insurgent”. There is also perhaps some “motivated perception” going on here. Psychologists tell us that humans can form “in groups” and “out groups” very quickly, sometimes wanting to be seen as belonging to one group and definitely not to another. Yuppies were always that awful group of people over there. It was never a label that could possibly have been applied to oneself. David Cameron once staked his claim for membership of the “sharp-elbowed middle classes”, which was pushing it a bit (I am referring to his alleged “middle-class” status. I make  no comment on the sharpness or otherwise of his elbows.)

Likewise, when Tony Blair once said that he didn’t like to see himself as a politician, it wasn’t just a clever bit of spin. It was rather something bordering perhaps on self-delusion: he really did not want to be seen as being part of that game, and felt that he was somehow separate from it. Bless.

The Brits, it is said, love an underdog. And commercially it could be quite a clever strategy to mark your business out as hungrier and more eager to please than a complacent market leader. Avis cars, acknowledging that Hertz was the market leader in car rentals, made a virtue out of this by claiming that “We try harder”. On the other hand, there was a time when British Airways was only too keen to declare itself “the world’s favourite airline” – thereby creating an opening for cheeky Mr Branson and his scarlet-clad cabin crew, an image and market positioning that seems to have endured, in the minds of some people in Downing Street, at least.

Is BA really “fat”, and is Virgin Atlantic really, after all these years, still an upstart? Airlines have good days and bad days. They are all capable of getting it right, or wrong. A lot of customers, you expect, would struggle to tell the difference between them. Had he become a travel writer, George Orwell might have described the scenes at Heathrow like this: “The passengers looked from upstart to fat cat, and from fat cat to upstart, and from upstart to fat cat again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

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