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Brand power with Richard Branson

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The words Coca-Cola and Microsoft, the Air Jordan logo, the letters BP and the name Richard Branson have one thing common – they have brand identity.

Branson, like Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, has reached planet celebrity status, similar to that of Mel Gibson and Madonna. Unlike the stars, however, he is a walking-talking brand, who instantly makes consumers think about products.

Brand experts have acknowledged the entrepreneurial instincts and strategic vision of Sir Richard – along with his quality management teams, which are driven by a fanatical will to succeed – as being critical to the success of Virgin products. But it’s argued that the Virgin brand is the ‘glue’ that holds it together.

The success of a brand is its ability to tell the market what it stands for without actually saying it. Virgin’s brand identity, according to the experts, stands for quality service, innovation, fun and value for money.

Branson adds to his offer to customers the promise of being the underdog in a fight for consumers against high-pricing big businesses. He promises and delivers a non-stuffy attitude, which has empathy with ‘ordinary’ people, particularly young men and women.  

Even the Virgin logo looks like it was devised by someone simply having a go. And all of these Branson symbols are constantly delivered by a maestro of public relations (PR).

Brand power, Branson-style

When a Branson event is announced to the media, the simple assumption is that a news story is on the way. Anyone who recalls his showing of the cheques from Ansett Australia, ahead of the airline’s nosedive out of aviation and corporate history, knows the power of the man who probably should spell his name as ’Brandson’, in honour of his understanding of how to create and build a brand name.

To gain insights into his intimate understanding of brand building, we spoke to Sir Richard. The first thing we asked was whether it was always his intention to create one of the most well-known brands in the world.  

“Yes, I think it probably was,” Branson says. “I always wanted to have fun and succeed at whatever I attempted. I didn’t stop and think it couldn’t be done. I surrounded myself with people who believed as much as I did that we could do it.”

Beyond the vision

Of course, it is one thing to dream. It’s very different making that dream come true. Branson’s summation of how he made his vision real recounts a formula for success:

“By working damn hard, putting faith in a lot of people who had experience where I didn’t, as well as those who didn’t have a clue, but had great life experience. And by following instinct and having a great time.”

He also counts taking the time to listen to people and their ideas as key.

“If you dismiss something or someone hastily, you could end up missing out on a great opportunity. We are all guilty of this at some stage in our lives – the important thing to do is to learn from your mistakes and get right back in there!”

While Sir Richard knew he wanted to wind up being an owner of a brand as famous as Pepsi or Levi Strauss, while he was building his most memorable brand, it became more apparent that he was growing more than a business. However, he admits it took some time for it to sink in.

“I think it was something that became apparent as Virgin diversified into 200 different companies and expanded internationally,” he says. “Obviously, the name Virgin was closely associated with music in the beginning, but it has now become much more than that.  

“I believe the Virgin brand, for many people, now stands for a lifestyle choice that sums up our core brand values of fun, innovation and value for money, and it attracts people who appreciate and demand great customer service.”

Despite his media magnetism, he does not concede that the name Branson has reached brand status (though this would be debatable). In fact, his reaction to whether he has become a brand in his own right showed a seldom seen, slightly humble Branson.

“I don’t think ‘Branson’ has become a brand,” he insists, “but I do know what you mean. It’s funny, as I don’t think I ever set out to become the face of Virgin, but with the launch of Virgin Atlantic, in what proved to be the most challenging industry I could ever have imagined, I realised I had to get out there and do whatever I could to make a noise about particular new products and the Virgin company.”

Thinking outside the square

This daredevil believes owners of businesses have to be willing to bog in and have a go.

“I think it’s important to put yourself on the line if you are going to back something. And if it means dressing up in a wedding frock or wearing a stinking-hot Tassie Tiger costume for the launch of a new route, then so bit it.”

Branson acknowledges that the role he plays is important, but he won’t accept the notion that perhaps his name and Virgin had virtually become co-branded. In fact, he insists that it is much more than just Richard Branson.  

“It’s made up of brilliant people who are committed to what they do and believe in themselves and Virgin,” he argues. “I’m fortunate to have started the company, but without the team behind me, the brand wouldn’t be as successful as it is today.”

So when did Branson twig the idea that a brand for music could be used for airlines, mobile phones, books, etc? Even at the age of 18, he knew that his businesses had to have a name that would apply to many different areas and products.

According to his book Losing My Virginity (Times Books), Branson brainstormed the name of his fledging record mail-order business with his staff.

As he recalls in his book: “Slipped Disc was one of the favourite suggestions. We toyed with if for a while, until one of the girls leant forward: ‘What about Virgin? It would be nice to have one here in name if nothing else’.”

The name Virgin was born. And as Sir Richard now says: “Slipped Disc Airlines might not have attracted many passengers!”

“I realised that there was a huge market out there for value-for-money-based products other than music. No one likes to be ripped off and a lack of competition is bad for consumers. So it was simply the realisation that if we offer a more affordable, fun and good-quality product, people would buy it.
“And we’ve made that simple philosophy work with everything from trains and planes, to mobile phones, wedding dresses and condoms. In the early days, it was more about charging ahead and trusting our intuition, not knocking back opportunities recklessly and not being too stuck on toeing the corporate line in terms of directions.”

Against the mould

In many ways, his business model seems to be a contrarian one, defined as not doing what his entrenched, conservative, corporate competitors are doing. You can see why he has fun.

In light of his results and given his vision, the application of his Virgin brand and business method is so successful that it’s not surprising he thinks “the sky’s the limit” for Virgin’s potential.

“Seriously though,” he says, “the vast majority of our ventures are successful. Some, such as the airlines and mobile phone companies, have proved hugely successful in hugely challenging markets.

“Virgin Blue, for example, is one of the companies I am most proud of, for the way the team managed to rise above the sceptics, introduce a brand new concept to Australian aviation and open up the sky to hundreds of thousands of people.”

Getting the message out

On the issue of brand building, Virgin and the roles played by advertising and PR, Branson’s insights are instructive. He views advertising as a steady medium that gradually drops in the Virgin message to its target audience.  

PR, on the other hand, happens in spurts. For those wondering about the relative importance of the often-competing marketing methods, his observations on their merits will please the advertising industry.

“While PR is great to get a key message out there, advertising is a strong and consistent means of communicating the message,” he insists. “Both are important, even a deliberate or calculated ‘stunt’ that gets PR attention. Sometimes it’s a ‘spur of the moment’ idea that takes the PR team by surprise.”

Despite the significant impact Virgin’s marketing campaigns have made, Branson’s control, expenditure-wise, is not dictatorial.  Expenditure, in terms of percentage of revenue his companies devote to advertising, PR and marketing, varies from company to company.

On the thorny accounting subject of the value of Virgin’s intellectual property (IP), Sir Richard comes across as a mere mortal – like the most of us when it comes to IP: “No, we have never had a worldwide valuation of the brand’s intellectual property, but I suspect it would be worth several billion pounds.”

His thoughts on what brand-builders of the future should be thinking about are typically provocative and predicably Branson. While he likes to hear other points if view, he is not entirely convinced about experts and does not believe that they had a critical role in the building of his brand.

“Always ask as many people as you can for advice and guidance – that certainly doesn’t stop just because you’ve become successful,” he advises. “Friends, family, colleagues, mentors – draw on everyone around you, not just the so-called experts.

“In the early days, it definitely wasn’t about going to ‘experts’ and having them tell me how to do it, it was more about finding our own way and bucking the trend of traditional, stuffy corporates.”

Core values and consistency

On the question of whether the Virgin brand could wind up like a ‘matron’, Branson is firm.

“Never!” he insists. “The value of a brand is in its reputation as a faithful provider and our teams across the world have worked hard to ensuring we do just that.”

He points to his company’s record with brand extension and the crucial role of consistent, core values.

“I think we’ve proved over the past 30-odd years that if you stay true to your core brand values [of fun, innovation, quality, great customer service and value for money], you can build successful companies under one brand, which can stretch from airlines and mobile phone companies through to financial services and high-street retailing,” he says.

On the future of the Virgin brand name, he suggests that there are endless possibilities.

Power of one

Finally, does he yearn for another brand as successful as Virgin?

“I have no desire for a new brand – I am very, very proud of the Virgin brand and everything it represents,” he says.  

“I think people sometimes get bogged down in the brand and forget the importance of all the companies that make up the brand. A brand is not about age, it’s about innovation, new challenges, providing competition and venturing into markets that have been subjected to high-priced monopolies or duopolies.  

“The reason the Virgin brand has appealed to people and remained so popular over the years is because of its commitment to providing a genuine offer, regardless of what the product may be. And we will do our best to continue doing so for many, many years to come.”

After a rather arduous grilling on the issue of branding, as a final courtesy, Sir Richard was asked if there was anything else he would like to say. His one word answer indicated that, on this occasion, he had been sucked dry of all there was to know about him and the subject.

“Phew,” was Sir Richard’s final word. A possible brand, perhaps?          

Work on your business, not in it. To learn how, book a complimentary business assessment today with a Switzer Business Coach.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Tuesday, January 19, 2010

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