Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson: 'Humour has always been a big part of our marketing'

Sir Richard Branson is an unmistakable figure as he cooly walks into the small meeting room within Virgin Group offices situated in the Battleship Building next to the Paddington Basin. He has had a long day of press engagements to talk about his company's stunt - the launch of a dyslexic-only sperm bank which in reality was a prank being used to gain exposure for the Made By Dyslexia charity.

This is classic Branson, a man who has built the company with an underdog image, using himself and his many death defying and logic challenging endeavour over the years. The stories are numerous and his name has never been far from the description "Maverick" ever since the 80s when he was ballooning around the world.

It's late in the afternoon and while he is tired, Branson knows who he is and is determined to be funny and original with a camera pointed at him to film his recipient speech for collecting this year's Lifetime Achievement Award at The Drum Marketing Awards.

He tries to begin his speech off camera and pokes his head from out of view in front of it and uses a faux Scottish accent to shout "fucking great" while waving the trophy but eventually settles down to deliver a more straight forward thank you speech instead. At the age of 66 there is clearly nothing stopping his exuberance and his trademark wild smile soon appears.

Branson is enigmatic in his acceptance of the award before agreeing to answer a few more questions about his career and the success of Virgin which go hand-in-hand. And while he pauses for thought as he talks, he is magnetic without ever offering a predictable response.

During the interview he tells the story of how he used to call press events for advertising poster reveals, claiming that 300 or so would run across London, when in reality that one poster site had only been painted the night before with the intention of gaining mass press exposure for free instead.

"We got away with that for quite a few years (he laughs) so you have to be inventive when you are struggling."

He describes Virgin as "a lifestyle brand" which is able to offer its customers a range of services "almost from the time you are born, but not quite til the time you die - we ain't got Virgin Funerals just yet" he quips.

"It tries to keep you healthy, it tries to make sure you can make telephone calls, you can get from A to B, you can go to space, anyway - it's a fun and creative brand and anything it does or touches it likes to do with a bit of panache or style."

Branson reveals that he has been looking at a potential site for a new hotel in London which would need to look "unique" and "special" in his view for it to be a consistent part of the Virgin offering. "We are building three cruise ships," he continues, "people who would never dream of using cruise ships would probably give us a try. If we can transform these businesses then more people will come back again and again."

Branson clearly sees Virgin as a business that offers experiences that intrigue consumers in their attempt to be something different from the establishment. But he also builds brands not just for the here and now, but with the future in mind as well.

He cites Hard Rock Cafe as one brand that hasn't beaten the test of time, unlike many of his own at Virgin, offering his memory of the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight from 33 years ago when he remembers wondering if it could remain as "fantastic" for 30 years alone.

"Virgin has managed to be hip but not so hip that it disappears within itself. So we are doing a hotel in Chicago which was voted Best Hotel in America by Conde Naste Traveller where Virgin is not shoved down your throat. You go into the bedroom and there is one red fridge in there - it's about getting all the little details right but not swamping people in the brand. Our spaceship company - the spaceship and the mothership are sexy. Everything about it is sexy so design is really important. Virgin America; everything about it from when you walk onto one of its planes you feel at home and so design plays a very important part of Virgin."

Of brands he admires outside of his own, he cites Apple and Under Armour as two, even going so far as to add his belief that the latter will bounce back from 'the damage' caused by its backing of President Trump.

Should Virgin Galactic prove a success, the fledgling space travel business should be the next future facing element of the business to literally take off. And he believes that marketing space travel will be "pretty easy" as long as he can deliver a spaceship that can actually go into space and bring people back safely again.

"There are millions and millions of people who want to become astronauts and we have been at it for 12 years. We have had our upsets, we had an incredible flight yesterday and we are nearly there. I don't think we'll have to spend a lot of money on marketing because word of mouth will do the trick, initially anyway. Maybe once we have got 10 or 20 spaceships then we may have to spend a bit of money, but it should market itself," he theorises.

The interview concludes with the question over whether Branson agrees with The Drum's belief that 'marketing can change the world' which draws a chuckle from him.

"If there is anyone in the world that believes that marketing can change the world then it's myself," he grins. "I initially didn't have any money so I had to use myself to put our brand on the map, whether it was sinking in boats or crashing in balloons - whatever it took to do that. Humour has always been a big part of our marketing and pulling the tail of our bigger competitors."

This leads Branson to talk about some of his most famous stunts - such as in 1999 with the failed erection of the BA 'millennial wheel' he scrambled an airship to float about the scene featuring the phrase 'BA can't get it up' which made front page headlines and the 'British Airways don't give a shiatsu' campaign to promote Virgin's in flight massage service.

"So humour is very important. We must have spent hundreds of millions on marketing over the years with the different Virgin companies and we tried to do that with style, panache and we do quite a lot," he concludes.

And to this day that mantra prevails with the unveiling of the dyslexic sperm bank idea that has led to Branson being interviewed on BBC Radio Four and gained newspaper and website coverage all over the UK. Despite the lifetime achievement award, Branson has a lot left yet to do and a few stunts still to pull.

The full interview with Sir Richard can be viewed above while the winners from this year's The Drum Marketing Awards can be found here.

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Stephen Lepitak

Stephen Lepitak is editor of The Drum, with responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day running of the content produced for the various platforms run by the publication. Over the years he has interviewed agency network bosses such as Sir Martin Sorrell, Maurice Lévy and Arthur Sadoun, as well as Cindy Gallop, Kim Kardashian, film directors James Cameron, Spike Jonze and producers Harvey Weinstein and Lord David Puttnam. With a keen interest in media and breaking news, Lepitak has been with The Drum since 2005 and is based across its UK, US and Asia operations.

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