Don’t Be Earnest

Enterprise - - Contents - By Richard Bran­son

The four P’s — peo­ple, prod­uct, price and pro­mo­tion — are of­ten cited as the keys to a suc­cess­ful busi­ness. Yet this list omits a vital in­gre­di­ent that has char­ac­terised Vir­gin com­pa­nies through­out our 40 years: Fun, with a cap­i­tal F!

When we started Vir­gin At­lantic in 1984, we had some great peo­ple and lots of good ideas about how to do things dif­fer­ently. Sadly, we did not have a lot of money to take it to the streets. Com­pared to the gi­ant es­tab­lish­ment play­ers of the time — TWA, Pan-Am and Bri­tish Air­ways — we had a tiny fleet, if one plane qual­i­fies as a fleet, and a minuscule ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get.

We could not do much about the sin­gle plane — leased from a gen­er­ous man at Boe­ing. We had to make the most of our mea­gre mar­ket­ing money. At the urg­ing of the late Sir Fred­die Laker, who made an art form of grab­bing the lime­light for his air­line, I quickly be­came a will­ing vic­tim in all kinds of wild and crazy ad­ven­tures to pro­mote the fledg­ling Vir­gin At­lantic. You couldn’t buy a quar­ter-page ad on the front of The New York Times, but when my sink­ing boat or crash­ing bal­loon just hap­pened to feature the dis­tinc­tive Vir­gin logo, there we were!

We also started to run some funny, pretty di­rect and usu­ally highly top­i­cal ad­ver­tise­ments to grab the public’s at­ten­tion.

Such “in your face” ads were largely un­known in the stodgy world of air­lines, so our ap­proach quickly gained us no­to­ri­ety, press cov­er­age and, above all, vis­i­bil­ity. The hu­mour stood out against our mori­bund com­peti­tors, and soon Vir­gin At­lantic itself — not just the ads — be­came syn­ony­mous with a cheeky and up­start per­son­al­ity and, more im­por­tantly, a fresh, dif­fer­ent ap­proach to com­mer­cial aviation.

Mar­ket­ing teams in London and New York fre­quently re­acted quickly to the day’s news and, within 24 hours, placed tac­ti­cal-re­sponse ad­ver­tise­ments in key mar­kets. The day af­ter John Su­nunu, then White House chief of staff, was cas­ti­gated for us­ing public money for a limou­sine to take him on per­sonal trips, Vir­gin ran a one-off ad say­ing if only he had booked Vir­gin At­lantic, he would have got­ten the limo for free!

When Gen Manuel Nor­iega, the for­mer leader of Panama, was ex­tra­dited to Mi­ami for trial, we ran a big picture of him, with the cap­tion, “Only one per­son has flown to Mi­ami cheaper than on Vir­gin At­lantic!”

Some­times the ads were close to the bone, es­pe­cially when tweak­ing the tail of our favourite ad­ver­saries, like Bri­tish Air­ways. Al­ways, they were ir­rev­er­ent and cheeky. The ads gave the air­line a real per­son­al­ity in its early years, which was a key to its suc­cess and growth.

Our staff also liked the hu­mour, and the sense of fun. They felt proud to be as­so­ci­ated with a company that made peo­ple smile and that was seen as a good place to work. We made sure the same spirit ran through ev­ery­thing we did; it was not con­fined to the cute ad­ver­tise­ments. It was cru­cial that we cre­ated an en­joy­able at­mos­phere for crew and pas­sen­gers alike, at 30,000 feet.

Lit­tle touches sig­ni­fied you were on a Vir­gin flight. Un­der­neath the salt and pep­per shak­ers, mod­elled on mini­air­planes, we stamped “Pinched from Vir­gin At­lantic.” The but­ter knife was en­graved with the words “stain­less steal.” We put a bar in the up­per class cabin so peo­ple could chat and so­cialise — af­ter all, trav­el­ling should be fun!

To en­ter­tain our pas­sen­gers, we were the first to put in seat-back tele­vi­sions. We served ice cream in

the mid­dle of the flights. We did ev­ery­thing we could to lighten the mood and the ex­pe­ri­ence. Twenty-five years later, the air­line re­tains that same sense of fun and the abil­ity to sur­prise and make peo­ple smile.

When Bri­tish Air­ways spon­sored London’s Mil­len­nium Wheel in the late 1990s, they planned to make a big splash for the of­fi­cial open­ing. On the day the wheel was to be raised, the en­gi­neers had great trouble lift­ing it. We jumped at the chance to cause a stir. We scram­bled a small air­ship to drag a ban­ner across London’s sky­line em­bla­zoned with “BA can’t get it up.” It was cheeky, all right, and we — not BA — grabbed the headlines that night.

This sense of hu­mour and risk­tak­ing has in­fused many of our other businesses. Vir­gin Mo­bile Canada pro­duced a se­ries of mem­o­rable ad­ver­tise­ments pok­ing fun at fa­mous peo­ple. When El­liot Spitzer, the for­mer gover­nor of New York, re­signed over a sex scan­dal, where he was iden­ti­fied as “client No 9,” our ads that week showed a picture of Spitzer with a thought bub­ble pro­claim­ing: “I’m tired of be­ing treated like a num­ber.”

The ads were all about Vir­gin Mo­bile’s per­son­al­ized ser­vice. They went on to say: “At Vir­gin Mo­bile, you’re more than just a num­ber. When you call us, we’ll treat you like a per­son, not a client. Whether you’re No 9 or No 900, you’ll get hooked up with some­body who’ll fi­nally treat you just how you want to be treated.”

An­other ad in the se­ries showed Hil­lary Clin­ton with a thought bub­ble say­ing, “I wish my bill wasn’t so out of con­trol.”

These ads ran for only short pe­ri­ods of time, but they were picked up in the me­dia and raised the pro­file of the company and the ser­vice.

My books’ ti­tles con­tinue the theme — “Los­ing My Vir­gin­ity,” “Screw It, Let’s Do It” and “Busi­ness Stripped Bare.” Pub­lish­ers, how­ever, ve­toed the ti­tle “Get­ting It Up” for my book on the his­tory of flight and went with “Reach for the Skies” in­stead. Oh well.

Over the years I have launched our com­pa­nies while dressed in cos­tumes to amuse our staff, our part­ners and the press. I have thrown my­self off tall build­ings, hung off bridges, driven tanks into Times Square and plunged (usu­ally in­vol­un­tar­ily) into oceans — all to grab at­ten­tion and re­in­force a sense of fun.

All of it has def­i­nitely made an im­pres­sion and has in­fused that “Vir­gin feel­ing” into new ven­tures. While it is not enough just to be the joker in the pack, if your ser­vice and prod­uct ex­cel, then mak­ing peo­ple smile will help you es­tab­lish a place in their hearts as well as their minds.

Try tak­ing your­self and your busi­ness less se­ri­ously. You may be sur­prised that many oth­ers will take you more se­ri­ously.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.