Companies can soar on the wings of branding

Communications and marketing should not be downplayed during this global credit crunch.

Communications and marketing should not be downplayed during this global credit crunch. I've learned that consistently communicating your values and attitude helps keep customers with you on what can be a long and bumpy ride.

Their loyalty is priceless. If they don't hear from you, they will lose interest and go elsewhere. This is especially relevant to the Virgin Group, where we start many companies, nurture them to maturity, sometimes sell stakes, and use that money to invest back into new and emerging markets. As a result, the consistent and innovative PR and marketing of our brand is central to maintaining loyal customers in our seemingly disconnected sectors.

It used to be all about television and newspapers, but thanks to social media, we have more ways to interact and even fewer reasons not to. I recently used Twitter to dispel rumors that I was interested in buying Playboy. We launched PitchTV through www.virgin.com to allow people looking for investment and exposure to submit business ideas that are then voted on and aired on Virgin Atlantic.

Here are some lessons we have learned listening to and engaging with our customers that should help with all of us on a budget.

Show them you care.
Everybody appreciates honesty and empathy. Last year, Virgin Mobile Canada noticed the word “recession” being bandied about with greater frequency.

It made consumers scared and anxious. Everyone knew “it” was the enemy, but didn't know what to do about “it,” how to get the best deals, or what deals made the best sense.

Virgin Mobile installed a billboard in the Times Square equivalent in Toronto that commanded: “Screw You Recession!” It launched a Web site with the same name, welcoming user-generated content on money-saving tips. It embraced recessionista chic before anybody else. In turn, customers saw its empathetic and, importantly, funny side.

Invite everyone to the conversation.
Last November, Virgin America became the second airline to announce a test flight with WiFi. As a new air carrier, the aim was to encourage media to get on our planes and try the unique in-flight experience. So it invited non-traditional media – bloggers, well-followed social media users – to an on-board party with YouTube celebrities and friends. This was then streamed live from 35,000 feet to a YouTube Live event in San Francisco.

The tech writers were genuinely interested in the WiFi, so they were all posting and live-streaming from the aircraft. Within weeks, Virgin America had 500,000 YouTube channel views. It may not have been the first to offer WiFi, but it made the biggest splash. The stunt caught the eye of larger outlets: when Virgin America became the first airline with fleetwide WiFi, it celebrated with the first ever Skype video chat from a plane with Oprah.

When the economy gives you lemons, make lemonade. And give it away for free.
Take advantage of the downturn and show customers what you're made of. In recent years, we have scaled back our involvement in music retail, but our music heritage remains alive through our global live festivals. The recession has hit people's spending money, and we'd noticed other festivals' sales were in decline, so Virgin Mobile USA decided to make the annual summer festival free.

I announced Freefest on Jimmy Fallon's show. That announcement was tweeted and retweeted. When tickets were released four days later, they were “freed” out in minutes.

Bad times offer a unique opportunity to show off your brand's true colors. My hope was that the festival would be a great day of community and music, while also showing that a daring plan like giving something for free will pay off in ways money can't buy. We placed more value on warming consumers' hearts than ticket sales. That is the sort of brand they know will continue to surprise and delight. And who doesn't want that?

Sir Richard Branson is the founder and president of Virgin Group, one of the world's most recognized and respected brands that has expanded into aviation, hospitality and leisure, telecomms, financial services, health and wellness, and clean energy through more than 200 companies worldwide. It employs approximately 50,000 people in 29 countries. In 2004, he launched Virgin Unite as a vehicle to pull together all Virgin Group resources to tackle some of the tougher humanitarian challenges facing the world today.

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