With an empire built on doing things better, sharper and with more attitude than older rivals, Sir Richard Branson’s business has long been more about building an innovative brand than a market-leading product. By James Montgue
He has long been admired for his ability to reinvent himself. His Virgin brand has turned its unique focus to almost every line of business, no matter how inaccessible it may seem from the outside; from owning a record label, to taking on the transatlantic might of British Airways and securing the franchise to run the fastest trains in Britain. His company’s tongue-in-cheek public school attitude has become ubiquitous in global consumer culture. And now Richard Branson has taken Virgin into the final frontier: space.
That, in a sense, is the story behind this most enduring of entrepreneurs; he has made his fortune doing things that had been done long before, only adding his own style and a large flourish of brand-savvy aspiration. This is entrepreneurship at its height. There’s no great invention, no midnights in the lab developing a new patent, no eureka moment to have him leaping from his bath screaming “of course!” Branson’s success has come from understanding that the product is only half the battle in today’s marketplace. How that product is delivered is the other – and it’s on his ability to connect with his customers that his empire has been established.
Indeed, his latest venture underlines this approach perfectly. He has recently injected hundreds of millions of dollars into Virgin Galactic, a project designed to exploit the bright new dawn of space travel. The desire to orbit the Earth might not be at the top of everyone’s birthday gift list, but Branson’s persona made the prospect instantly and undeniably appealing. When, last December, he unveiled Virgin’s Space Ship Two in front of nearly 1,000 journalists in a hangar in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the Virgin attitude created yet another must-have commodity. To prove the point were the 300 “astronauts” who had already bought a ticket for a flight into space – each costing $200,000.
“I know there are literally thousands of people who would love to go to space, to be able to look out the window and marvel at the beautiful Earth,” he told the assembled press. “It’s incredible to think only 450 people have ever been into space; that’s including all the Russians, all the Chinese and all the Americans put together. With our new commercial spaceship company, Virgin Galactic, we’ll take maybe 1,000 people and make them into ‘astronauts’ in the 12 months once we start.”
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