Suddenly the brand stood for more than just socking it to the big guys, and although Branson continued to run cheeky ads attacking British Airways, and occasionlly pursue legal action for price fixing, his company was no budget airline competing for a different class of customer. Virgin had radically repackaged itself and its vast portfolio of businesses, presenting themselves in such a way as to make the customer experience hip and aspirational.
Building an elastic brand
“If you get your face and your name out there enough, people will start to recognise you,” is Branson’s mantra. “Many people know the Virgin brand better than the names of the individual companies within the group. Branding is everything.”
And no one can possibly say that they don’t know what Richard Branson looks like. His famous publicity stunts have made him a topic of light-hearted ridicule across the world: wearing make up for the launch of Virgin’s new cosmetic line Vie; carrying Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese down the red carpet slung over his shoulders for the launch of Virgin Media; dressing up as Elvis, a blushing bride, or a six-foot rabbit. Or, in one of his less successful stunts, rappelling 400 metres down, James Bond-style, to open a new Las Vegas casino before getting stuck, swinging in the air.
“Virgin’s core success over the last four decades has been to create a challenger brand that is elastic, irreverent and contemporary enough to operate across multiple sectors – from rail travel, to airline, even to wedding dresses”, says Ovais Naqvi of Abraaj Capital. “Aside from that, they have mitigated classic start-up risk by licensing the Virgin name to various ventures, which gives any new operation ‘instant’ brand equity without a huge capital outlay to Virgin itself. That royalty provides assured income in a risk-managed model. They’re self-owned, self-funded businesses that provide a royalty stream”.
Today, Virgin is everywhere: on digital TV boxes, mobile phones, even upscale gyms. Branson’s next step, however, is to give it all away and invest all his profits from his transportation businesses until 2016, an estimated $3 billion, into developing cleaner fuels and reduce green house gasses. He has also launched the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize for anyone who comes up with a viable way of removing greenhouse gases from the earth’s atmosphere.
Some have been sceptical of the moves, which landed him on Time magazine’s list of environmental heroes. After all, Branson was once an avowed climate sceptic. Could it be just another stunt to further the Virgin brand? “People do things for different reasons, not just one. I have about ten different reasons for doing this. One is to tackle climate change. Another is to develop a clean fuel industry,” he told the Independent. “But I would also love to have Virgin recognised as the most respected brand in the world. If it can be a leader in tackling global warming, and it enhances the brand, that’s fine. It will enable us to tackle the problem all the sooner.”
As ever, Sir Richard Branson sees no contradiction in having your cake and eating it, too. Which is perhaps why he has tasted very little failure in his 40-year career, be it in the field of selling records or selling space flights.
“I find it very difficult to think of mistakes,” he told The Guardian when asked about the decisions he regretted in his career. “As for what lost the most money, probably Virgin Cola. It is still No 1 in Bangladesh though.” So, he’s humanoid after all.