GREAT BRITISH BRANDS: Virgin - the 'Anti-Establishment' Business Is Now Part of the Furniture but Where Will It Go If Richard Branson Does Pull Out?

Marketing, August 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

GREAT BRITISH BRANDS: Virgin - the 'Anti-Establishment' Business Is Now Part of the Furniture but Where Will It Go If Richard Branson Does Pull Out?


It's strange to think the Virgin brand is now more than 30 years old because its most enduring characteristic is being the young, unconventional upstart that challenges the business establishment.

The bedrock of Virgin's success has been to enter sectors often dominated by powerful players - such as the cola, mobile phone or airline businesses - and shake them up with lower prices, better service and an innovative product. Doing this time and again has built its reputation as a 'hero' brand, always on the side of the consumer. Its approach is personified in founder Richard Branson himself, who, whether battling against British Airways in the courts or trying to balloon around the world, lives and breathes the brand's buccaneering spirit.

It all started in 1970, when Richard Branson and his cousin, Simon Draper, set up a mail-order music business under the Virgin name. This led to the launch of Virgin Records in 1973, which scored its first major success with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and then hit gold again by signing the Sex Pistols in the late 1970s. Adding such names as Culture Club in the 1980s, Virgin was soon one of the biggest record companies in the world. With the proceeds, Branson began diversifying into other entertainment areas, such as film and video distribution.

But it was the quantum leap into the airline business, with the launch of Virgin Atlantic in 1984, that took everyone by surprise. Starting with a single 747 flying one transatlantic route, Virgin Atlantic became one of the world's most profitable airlines in the 1980s, marketing itself on a ticket of excellent service at low prices. In order to fuel the expansion of his beloved airline, Branson sold Virgin records to EMI in 1992, trousering a cool dollars 1bn (pounds 64m).

The money helped Branson to accelerate the expansion of the group, which he did by forming the Virgin Trading Company in 1994. Tasked with taking the Virgin name into any niche where there was an opportunity, this marked a turning point for the brand as it struck licensing deals to launch a string of new products, including Virgin Cola, Virgin Direct Financial Services and Virgin Vodka. Branson also bought the MGM Cinema chain to launch Virgin Cinemas, took control of the Our Price chain and was extending the Virgin Megastore brand around the world.

By 1999, Virgin Atlantic was in sufficiently rude health to persuade Singapore Airlines to pay pounds 550m for a 49% stake, injecting yet more funds for expansion. …

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