In this five-part blog series, I take a closer look at some of the biggest brands on the planet. Brands that have successfully carved out markets for themselves in every sector imaginable. Those brands that have become entities that people know and recognize whether they live in the Namibia or Germany, are 7 or 77 years old.
Sector(s): Travel & Leisure, Health & Wellness, Music & Entertainment, Telecoms & Media, Financial Services, Space
Reach: 5 continents
Years in operation: This year marks the half-century birthday of one of the world’s most famous brands.
So, where did it all begin?
It began with music, sweet, sweet music…and revolutionary ideas. It was the late 1960’s when Richard Branson published a magazine called Student.
Understanding that young people were feeling increasingly misunderstood, he spotted an opportunity to help. In Finding my Virginity, he notes that it was not his intention to start a business per se. Rather, the magazine’s purpose was two-fold; to give a voice to the youth and to challenge stereotypes about the demographic. However, he quickly learned that the best way to make a positive change in people’s lives and make a difference was to become an entrepreneur.
And it turns out he was a natural!
I secured advertising by calling up big brands from the school phone box, telling them their rivals were already advertising with us and playing them off against each other. - Finding My Virginity Autobiography
The first issue sold $8,000 in advertising, and 50,000 copies were released for free. The magazine, which later featured interviews with Mick Jagger and R.D. Laing, became a vital component of the mail-order record business. By leveraging the advertising space to market popular albums, he drove record sales significantly.
And so as his company grew, like a true entrepreneur, he looked for more opportunities to expand.
Dancing To The Beat Of His Own Drum
It was the era of headbands, flares, and disco when Branson launched a retail business selling records. The next step in his journey took him to Oxford Street, London. Seeing its growing potential, Branson decided this would be an ideal location for his first record store. Selling records at discount prices, the store quickly became popular. Youngsters looking for a better deal would frequently comb the shelves for the latest smash hit record.
A recording studio and label, of course! In a residential recording studio named The Manor Studio, the Virgin Record Label was born.
All of this success from a group of business novices?
Exactly, and they owned that too, hence the name, Virgin.
Virgins in business they may have been, but their spirit and enthusiasm thrust them forward. Virgin Records was the vehicle that would carry Richard Branson to higher altitudes of success.
There’s magic in the air…
It was only the beginning of a colorful history.
Eventually, his success in music propelled him to establish travel companies, Virgin Atlantic and the Voyager Group. His record store in London evolved into Virgin Megastores, and so he brought all his companies under the umbrella of Virgin Group.
After 20 or so years of trading, Branson sold the label to Thorn EMI for $1 billion. Even though the company fetched that amount of money, the sale reportedly hit him hard, and tears were shed.
The loss was processed, the tears were wiped, and onwards he marched. Virgin Radio was opened in the same year, and three years later, in 1995, V2, his second record company, was established - determination and resilience exemplified.
You gotta roll with the punches.
It is often said the first loss is the hardest. It seems Branson took the learnings, absorbed them, and allowed them to strengthen him. This strength undoubtedly carried him through other business failures such as
Virgin Cola, Virgin Cosmetics, and Virgin Brides.
Clearly, giving up was not an option. Fortune really does seem to favour the brave, and today there are over 40 companies under the umbrella.
So What Was The Appeal Of The Brand?
From the beginning, Virgin set itself apart.
Too many companies want their brands to reflect some idealized, perfected image of themselves. As a consequence, their brands acquire no texture, no character, and no public trust. - Richard Branson
First, the record label signed controversial bands such as the Sex Pistols, which other companies were reluctant to sign. By doing what other record labels refused to do, Virgin was establishing a name for itself as a non-traditional company. They were showing the nation they were a company with equality and inclusion at its heart. Essentially, they were branding themselves as the company that would be willing to take a risk and stand up for what they believe in.
It was this moral stance that made Virgin incredibly popular with the young audience at the time.
Secondly, with Virgin Atlantic, they made the consumer their focus.
We flew to desirable destinations. We came up with innovative new products and services that would make the journey much more fun. We hired happy people with lively personalities to be our cabin crew. And we didn’t charge the earth.
We gave people a choice. A bright red, fun, friendly, fabulous choice that made travel attainable for everyone. Back then, our personality was cheeky and over the top. We were a tiny airline up against much bigger players. We needed to use quite radical language to get attention. We were the airline that loudly proclaimed ‘BA doesn’t give a shiatsu’ to promote our onboard massages. ‘Play with yourself’ was the way we chose to advertise the first ever seatback games. Not exactly subtle, but it got us noticed. - Virgin Atlantic Story
Those first business endeavors were the building blocks of the brand’s essence
Over time Virgin would become synonymous with:
The Leader Of The Brand
And at the helm, steering the brand is a charismatic leader.
Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson was born 18th July 1950. He is an English business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist.
He is the only entrepreneur to have built 12 different billion-dollar companies in 8 different sectors.
Often described as a maverick, he explains the reason for his success,
I never learned the rules in the first place. To change the game is at the heart of what Virgin stands for, so the company culture has always been: “Don’t sweat it: rules were meant to be broken.” This has enabled Virgin to move forward and to improve as a company. - Entrepreneur Richard Branson
And improve they did.
The Virgin Group now operates more than 40 companies across five business sectors and five continents as described in the Virgin story.
How did they do it?
Give the people what they want.
Yes, in many ways, it really is that simple. Listen to what the market is telling you, launch something, ask for feedback, tweak accordingly and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Many of our products and services come about because we pay attention to what the market is missing or what’s not being done well. To look at what it is our customer wants and what it is the industry needs. We’ve been successful by looking from the point of view of our customers and seeking feedback through listening. - Entrepreneur Richard Branson
Sometimes, leading with what you want by creating a service or product suited to you doesn’t work. In such instances, being able to acknowledge this and release the emotional attachment is key. This is something that Richard has perfected this over the years. In his own words,
Truth be told, there are numerous secrets. Looking back over Virgin’s history, though, it would seem that there are definite themes that have ensured the brand’s success. The golden thread that was first sown in the 1970s has been weaved throughout the brand’s lifetime. It could be said that their success was completely by design.
Happy birthday Virgin!
50 years old, forever young!
Virgin By Design: the official publication celebrating the half-century birthday of one of the world’s most famous brands