Virgin, the brainchild of the UK’s Richard Branson, vividly illustrates the power of strong traditional and non-traditional marketing communications. Branson emerged in the 1970s with his innovative Virgin Records. He signed unknown artists no one would touch and began a marathon of publicity that continues to this day. He has since sold Virgin Records but created over 200 companies worldwide whose combined revenues exceed US $5 billion.
The Virgin name – the third most respected brand in Britain – and the Branson personality help to sell diverse products and services such as planes, trains, finance, soft drinks, music, mobile phones, cars, wine, publishing, even bridal wear. Clearly Branson can create interest in almost any business he wants by simply attaching the name ‘Virgin’ to it. Virgin Mobile exemplifies this strategy. Branson supplies the brand and a small initial investment and takes a majority control, and big-name partners come up with the cash.
Some marketing and financial critics point out that he is diluting the brand, that it covers too many businesses. Branson has had some fumbles: Virgin Cola, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Vodka have all disappeared. But despite the diversity all the lines connote value for money, quality, innovation, fun, and a sense of competitive challenge. The Virgin Group is always looking for new opportunities in markets with underserved, overcharged customers and complacent competition.
A master of the strategic publicity stunt, Branson took on stodgy, overpriced British Airways by wearing World War I – era flying gear to announce the formation of Virgin Atlantic in 1984. The first Virgin flight took off laden with celebrities and media and equipped with a brass brand, waiters from Maxim’s in white tie and tails, and free flowing champagne. The airborne party enjoyed international press coverage and millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity.
Although Branson eschews traditional merket 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’s marketing campaigns include press and radio advertisements, direct mail and point-of-sale material. Virgin Mobile, for instance, rolled out a postcard advertising campaign offering consumers discounts on new phones.
To identify where listeners to Virgin’s Web – based Virgin radio reside, the company created a VIP club. Listeners join the club by giving their post code, which then lets Virgin Radio target promotions and advertising to specific locations, just as a local radio station would. Once known as the ‘hippie capitalist’, Sir Richard Branson continues to look for new businesses and to generate publicity in his characteristic charismatic style.