Brightline enters branding, marketing pact with Virgin Group

Florida service gains global recognition in rebranding, but risks hard-earned identity
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A Miami-bound Brightline train crosses the New River at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on May 11, 2018. Brightline will be rebranded as "Virgin Trains USA" under a new agreement.
Bob Johnston
Virgin Group's transportation operations include passenger operations in the United Kingdom, as with this aging ex-British Rail trainset under Virgin’s brand departing Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2017.
Bob Johnston

MIAMI — After several years of successfully building its Brightline brand, the organization once known as All Aboard Florida has entered into a “strategic marketing partnership” with an international transportation provider, the Virgin Group, that will result in rebranding its trains and service.

The new entity, Virgin Trains USA, “will be managed and operated by Brightline’s executive team and affiliates of the Fortress Investment Group,” according to a Friday press release announcing the agreement. The Virgin brand will help define the service for European travelers who are expected to be a major component of the clientele riding between Miami and Orlando, Fla., once the extension to central Florida becomes a reality in a few years.

As part of the arrangement, the announcement says “Virgin Group will make a minority investment” in Brightline. The amount has not been disclosed. The additional funding could provide a major financial boost for the company’s substantial investment needs.

Wes Edens, chairman of Brightline and co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, says in a statement, “Virgin has built a respected and trusted brand in travel and hospitality.”

Some Americans are familiar with how Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic’s customer focus have helped redefine air travel. The agreement will also allow cross pollination with Virgin Hotels and Virgin Voyages to similarly extend the Richard Branson brand beyond its United Kingdom rail franchises, which Virgin has operated since British Rail was privatized in the mid-1990s. It also may make sense for rail expansion to other U.S. markets, such as Southern California-Las Vegas.

The problem for existing Brightline management, which the release insists “will oversee daily operations, engineering, business development, and strategy” as the company expands to Orlando and then Tampa, is that Virgin’s reputation comes with the baggage of personal experience from all of those other services — not all of it positive.

Brightline has so far done a good job of doing what it absolutely needed to do in the U.S. market: defining its product as “not Amtrak” and “not a commuter train,” as demonstrated in its distinctive stations, colorful trains, and engaging online presence. By renaming itself and transitioning to Virgin Trains USA branding in 2019, it remains to be seen how much of that marketing advantage it worked so hard to establish will be squandered as the price of its new partnership.    

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