I got the idea for this post while watching an interview with Sir Richard Branson, the high-flying CEO of the Virgin Group of Companies (virgin.com). Branson’s name and image have become synonymous with round-the-world balloon adventures, mobile phones, the Sex Pistols, Megastores, financial services, radio stations and hundreds of products that carry the iconic Virgin brand.
Branson has a knack for creating publicity that dates back to the early 1970s, when he launched Virgin Music to record Mike Oldfield’s instrumental masterpiece, Tubular Bells (mikeoldfield.com). In the early years of Virgin Music, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Branson attempted to set a number of world records. From racing across the Atlantic Ocean in a speed boat to sailing around the world in a hot-air balloon, Branson came to epitomize the fun-loving, free-wheeling entrepreneurial life.
But, there was a method to Branson’s apparent madness. His attempts to break world records, in water and in the air, served two purposes, as Branson himself later admitted. It allowed him to indulge his love of extreme sports and pit himself against the elements. It also provided plenty of free publicity for the expanding Virgin empire.
Branson couldn’t afford costly marketing and promotional campaigns for his companies. So, when the media caught wind of Branson’s dangerous pursuits, they tagged along and reported on events as they unfolded, as though they were covering an Apollo mission. They did so, partly because of Branson’s charm, and partly because his adventures always made good press.
The widespread media coverage that Branson, and Virgin, received from his various boating and balloon exploits could not have been purchased at any cost. What the coverage did was put Virgin on the map – and kept it there.
Throughout his career, Branson has managed to feed the publicity machine by participating in all sorts of media-friendly acrobatics. Branson’s image has been front and centre whenever he crossed an ocean, formed a company, or launched a new product.
What other CEO rappels down the side of a building to launch a new mobile phone service? What other CEO dresses up as a bride to launch a bridal gown company? In his efforts to steal the media spotlight, Branson has created an aura about him, a sense of fun and excitement, a sense of danger and adventure, along with a sense of the unexpected, prompting the inevitable question, “What’s he going to do next?”
The marketing genius of Sir Richard Branson has been studied in business schools and emulated by entrepreneurs everywhere. He is a text book example of how one individual can empower a brand by sheer force of his personality and a deep understanding of the needs of his customers.
Some may mistake Branson’s disarming smiles and awe-shucks demeanor as symptoms of his incredible good fortune and an ability to always land on his feet. But, beneath the pleasant exterior, there is a shrewd mind at work, sizing up opportunities and ready to pounce into markets that are either under- or poorly-served. Despite his personal fortune, and a track record that reveals many more hits than misses, he still longs for the next big deal.
Few entrepreneurs of the modern age have managed to marry a personal image with a particular brand quite as successfully as Branson. In this age of larger-than-life personalities, names like Gene Simmons, Donald Trump, Sean ‘P.Diddy’ Combs, Martha Stewart, Madonna and Oprah spring easily to mind. These entrepreneurs have certainly created global empires and forged distinctive brands from their personalities.
But, in my opinion, Sir Richard Branson stands head and shoulders above any of these other entrepreneurs. Everything he touches seems to generate mostly positive and flattering press coverage for him and his 250-odd companies – one could almost say that he’s got the Midas touch. Even when the chips are down – as they were during Branson’s highly-publicized law suit against British Airways in 1992 when he could have lost it all – we find ourselves cheering for Branson, the underdog.
For more than a decade, I’ve followed Branson’s career and drawn inspiration from his ability to compete against established businesses, his boundless creativity and his razor-sharp business instincts. Win or lose, rain or shine, Branson appears unbeatable and unstoppable; he seems to emerge from his various business and personal adventures unscathed, grinning mischievously, always a little wiser, always looking for his next challenge.
I guess that, more than anything else, I admire his sense of bravado and willingness to throw himself headlong into a business with little more than raw curiosity and a steely determination to figure out how the game is played, and then to beat the incumbents by providing better service and value.
How many times have we heard, “No, you can’t do that? That market is saturated? The odds are too great against you?” It takes a Richard Branson to challenge the prevailing wisdom and status quo, and to create a crowd-pleasing improvement on an old model.
Branson quotations are legend, and I’ve collected my fair share of them over the years. Here are a couple of quotes that resonated with me, before I launched my own business in 1999.
"To be successful, you have to be out there, you have to hit the ground running, and if you have a good team around you and more than your fair share of luck you might make something happen. But you certainly can't guarantee it just by following someone else's formula."
"I can honestly say that I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If that is the sole motive then I believe you are better off not doing it."
To learn more about Sir Richard Branson, several books are available that chart his career, starting from his earliest days operating a mail-order record business, to his present-day status as CEO of a global empire with yearly sales of $25 billion.
Two books that I would personally recommend are:
Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography, by Richard Branson
Richard Branson: The Inside Story, by Mick Brown
Branson has a blog at http://entrepreneur.virgin.com/