Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Audacious Branding

My family and I spent last Saturday cruising around San Francisco. Lovely weather. Music and art in the street. And a Virgin Megastore. It was packed. The joint was jumpin’, and within 10 minutes I knew we didn’t belong. My kids were too young and I was too old (I’m smart enough not to say anything public about my wife’s age). In my defense, I’m not geriatric; this coming weekend my wife and I are going to hear Los Lonely Boys on Saturday night and Hank Williams Jr. on Sunday night—but still, as anybody over, say, 40 would conclude, I didn’t belong.

But it got me thinking about Virgin. What a great brand. Everything Richard Branson touches seems magically cool. How does he do it? I think the key is audacity. Sir Richard (yes, he was knighted by the queen), the head of the Virgin Group, has been known for audacious personal behavior—like jumping out of luggage bins to greet passengers on Virgin Air. But I think the essence of the Virgin brand is audacious strategy and audacious design, which has been the trademark of every Virgin business, from airline to music to cellphones and beyond.

When I say “and beyond”, I sound like Buzz Lightyear, but I mean it literally. Audacity can certainly be applied to Virgin’s new privately funded Virgin Galactic outer space tourism business. This sounds so audacious as to be as to be outright nutty. But consider: Branson’s partner is Burt Rutan, who oversaw the development of SpaceShipOne, which has already traveled twice to the edge of space. Further, Branson is licensing the necessary SpaceShipOne technology from Mojave Aerospace, owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who happens to be Rutan’s partner. With private investment coupled with an initial ticket price of $210,000 (for the experience of a grand total of 3 minutes of weightlessness in space), which is collected by potential customers (and believe me, there are plenty of potential customers) two years prior to the first flight, even skeptics are beginning to believe that Branson’s presumed insanity actually has a real (and disciplined) business logic. Given his blockbuster successes in so many other ventures, I would say—here's another winner.

I gotta tell you, it sounds very tightly choreographed, and very sexy. Listen to this promotional blurb:

You may well fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class into the nearest major city. Possibly we will pick you up in the Virgin Galactic executive jet and shuttle you to the Virgin Galactic space resort, where you will be guided to your luxury accommodation. This will be home during your stay.

Every morning you could be ferried by helicopter to the training base and spaceport where you might undergo six days of medical preparation, G-Tolerance training, talking to space experts about how to get the most from your experience, fly the simulator and in the evenings dine with astronauts and guest speakers.

Two hundred thousand bucks for six days preparing, three minutes in space, and it actually sounds very cool. I’m not ready to take a second mortgage, but it even sounds worth it.

So maybe that’s the secret of the whole Virgin brand: audacity on stage, tough business discipline backstage, premium price for the privilege of being part the theatre production. Seems to work for billionaire Branson. I can think of worse role models.


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