Virgin roared onto the British stage in the 1970s with the innovative Virgin Records, the brainchild of entrepreneur Richard Branson, a high school dropout who signed unknown artists and began a marathon of publicity that continues to this day. The flamboyant Briton sold Virgin Records in 1992 and has gone on to launch more than 400 companies worldwide whose combined revenues exceeded $24 billion in 2012.
The Virgin name—the third most respected brand in Britain—and the Branson personality help sell the company’s diverse portfolio of branded air travel, railroads, financial services, music, mobile phones, cars, wine, publishing, and medical devices. The Virgin Group looks for new opportunities in markets with underserved, overcharged customers and complacent competition. Branson explained, “Wherever we find them, there is a clear opportunity area for Virgin to do a much better job than the competition. We introduce trust, innovation, and customer friendliness where they don’t exist.”
Some marketing and financial critics have pointed out that Branson dilutes the brand and covers too many businesses. There have been some fumbles: Virgin Cola, Virgin Cosmetics, Virgin Vodka, and Virgin Brides have all but disappeared. But despite the diversity, all Virgin Group’s brands stand for quality, innovation, and fun.
Branson is a master of the strategic publicity stunt and knows photographers will turn up if he gives them a good reason. When he took on stodgy British Airways in 1984, he wore World War I-era flying gear to announce the formation of Virgin Atlantic. The first Virgin flight took off laden with celebrities, media, a brass band in full swing, waiters from Maxim’s dressed in white tie and tails, and free-flowing champagne. The airborne party enjoyed international press coverage and millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity.
When Branson launched Virgin Cola in the United States in 1998, he steered an army tank down New York’s Fifth Avenue and blew up a Coca-Cola sign, garnering interviews on network TV news shows the next morning. In 2002, he plunged into Times Square from a crane to announce his new mobile phone business. In 2004, he appeared at a New York City nightclub wearing flesh-colored tights and a strategically placed portable CD player to introduced a line of hip techie gadgets called Virgin Pulse. Branson has attended press conferences dressed in an astronaut’s suit and angel’s wings, driven across the English Channel in an amphibious car, and even bared his bottom to the press when Virgin Atlantic landed in Canada for the first time. His good-natured humor and flamboyant personality attract media attention and customer admiration around the globe. Reports say Virgin’s press coverage equates to $1.6 billion in media value per year.
Although Branson avoids traditional market research, he stays in touch through constant customer contact. When he first set up Virgin Atlantic, he called 50 customers every month to chat and get their feedback. He appeared in airports to rub elbows with customers, and if a plane was delayed, he handed out gift certificates to a Virgin Megastore or discounts on future travel.
Virgin Unite is a nonprofit foundation that tackles global, social, and environmental problems with an entrepreneurial approach. A team of scientists, entrepreneurs, and environmental enthusiasts work with Virgin to reinvent the way “we live and work to help make people’s lives better.” Virgin Green Fund is a private equity firm investing in renewable energy and resource efficiency sectors. Virgin established the Earth Challenge in 2007 to award $25 million to any person or group who develops a safe, long-term, commercially viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Submissions are being reviewed by a team of scientists, professors, and environmental professionals.
Now knighted by the Queen of England, Sir Richard never does anything small and quiet. He once said, “Lavish praise on people and people will flourish; criticize and they shrivel up.” This philosophy has led him to many successes both in business and in life. Whether looking for a new business, generating publicity in his characteristic style, or encouraging research to help the planet, Branson does it with a bang.
Source: Kotler Philip T., Keller Kevin Lane (2015), Marketing Management, Pearson; 15th Edition.