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Industry heroes: Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group – ‘Proof that great marketing can change the world for good’

Tricor Group’s head of marketing and communications Sunshine Farzan has learned empathy, putting customers first and holding her own against the tide of popular opinion from her industry hero Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson

I’ve always been struck by the power of our profession. As marketers, we influence how people live their lives: from the food they buy for their families to the banks they trust with their savings.   

And yet, how many marketers can truly say that their campaigns have changed the world? Not many.

Sir Richard Branson is one of those legends. Brilliant, bold and unafraid to have fun, his power of influence inspires me like nobody else. Branson – or Richard, as he famously prefers to be called — has built eight billion-dollar companies under the Virgin brand, successfully marketing everything from gym memberships to space travel.

His greatest gift is empathising with his customers, designing products that put people first. We all know how frustrating an experience flying can be. But when Branson was bumped off a flight while trying to visit his girlfriend, he didn’t just complain; he created his own challenger brand, Virgin Atlantic, in 1984.

Within the first year, the company was profitable, with customers revelling in his promise that air travel could be more than long queues and terrible service — it should be champagne in the sky.

In 1991, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to offer individual TV screens for passengers in any class, setting the benchmark in customer experience.

Memorable launches and stunts have kept the brand fresh and fun, like when Branson swept Kate Moss into his arms on the wing of an aircraft to celebrate the carrier’s 25th anniversary. Or who could forget when he dressed up as an air stewardess after losing a bet with the Asia Air CEO?

More than headlines, what really keeps customers like me coming back are the small details, such as thoughtful in-flight snacks, awesome airport lounges and frictionless service. Even economy passengers receive a better service than expected for the price of the ticket.

I often think of Virgin Atlantic in the course of my own work: how do I give customers what I myself want and expect? When developing Hong Kong’s first suite of digital life insurance products in 2013, I kept coming back to my own experience of filling in lengthy paper forms, knowing there must be an easier way.

Branson’s success with Virgin Atlantic showed me how experiencing a problem firsthand can be the first step to developing the solution to it.

Branson hasn’t succeeded by following the rules. After all, who starts their own airline? He follows his instincts, trusting that if he wants something, he’s not alone.

As a teenager, he established Virgin Records because he liked an album but none of the traditional record labels would release it. So, he did. That album, ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield, became one of the UK’s best-selling albums of the 1970s.

Admittedly, it’s easier to challenge the status quo when you don’t belong to an organisation. As someone who leads and works in teams, I can’t disregard the perspectives of my colleagues. Nor would I want to. But if we disagree about a product or campaign, Branson’s courage gives me the motivation to argue my point, even if I’m in the minority.  

It hasn’t all been so easy for him, though.

In 1998, Branson stormed Times Square in a military tank, flamboyantly declaring war on Coca-Cola.

But consumers voted against him with their wallets, and by 2012, Virgin Cola was out of business. Branson didn’t dwell on the failure — he moved on, later describing how Virgin Cola taught him “only to go into businesses where we were palpably better than all the competition”.

Given that he’s founded 250 businesses, it’s only natural that some would perform far better than others — but others wouldn’t have the same confidence to recover as him.

I am reminded of his resilience every time I experience a setback in my own life. Whatever the issue, I know it won’t improve by looking backwards. Instead, I take Branson’s approach and move forward.

Branson’s extraordinary life is proof that great marketing can change the world for good. Entire industries can be reinvigorated and new products can be brought to market, bringing joy to millions of people.

And it doesn’t have to be serious. What really distinguishes Branson as a marketer is that he does it all with such ease and enthusiasm.

Fifty years after starting his own company, he still describes work as “ridiculously exciting,” a calling too exciting to ignore. Who else breaks out of the office to fly around the world in a hot air balloon or drinks champagne while rappelling down the side of a Spaceport air hanger?

Having worked in the US, Mexico, Australia and Hong Kong, I’ve met a lot of talented people in this industry. But no one is as inspirational, or impactful, as Richard Branson.  
Sunshine Farzan is the group head of marketing and communications at Tricor Group. She is based in Hong Kong

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