Helen Edwards on Branding: Virgin modesty

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

Sir Richard Branson's brand escapes public anger because it understands the nation's petty envies.

The British have a contradictory attitude to wealth. When just two individuals recently shared a £160m capital gain, and paid not a penny in tax, they were feted in the press, their faces beaming out under cheery headlines.

They had made their fortune, not through endeavour or risk, but by choosing numbers on a lottery ticket - a socially acceptable route to riches in Britain today. Had they built a successful enterprise, and taken a £160m taxable dividend, they would have faced censure over 'obscene' director earnings. Had they made their stash as bankers, they might well have been pelted with rotten fish.

Sir Richard Branson is a banker now, through Virgin Money's acquisition of Northern Rock, though predictably, he is not comfortable with the epithet.

On his personal blog he declares 'bank' a discredited term, and invites suggestions for new ways to describe Northern Rock's business.

This verbal sleight of hand is a typical manoeuvre from a group that is replete with its own contradictions, but understands the power of words. Like the banks, the ranks of which it now joins, it has enjoyed success, ring-fenced failure, and provided lavish payouts for the people at the top. Unlike the banks, it knows how to present these truths for the peculiarities of the British public sentiment.

The plain facts show that a group run by a billionaire has cut a deal with the Chancellor to acquire a state-owned bank at a loss of about £400m to the taxpayer. Such is the strength of the Virgin brand, however, that this is greeted with approval by staff, customers and not a few taxpaying commentators.

Many have sought to define the glue that holds that brand together, and reached for terms such as 'challenger' and 'alternative'. The secret is probably closer to sheer insight - not just into consumers, but into the psyche of a nation, and its petty grievances and envies.

Virgin understands that the British like their success served with modesty, and will forgive failure if it happens to a nice-enough bloke in a woolly, who was only doing his best. Branson obliges by deflecting attention from the fat-cat lifestyle with a permanent underdog mantra - taking care, for example, to voice sympathy recently with the anti-capitalist protesters.

'Virgin Rocks', as Branson suggests the bank might be renamed, will make the small, but multiple improvements that typify the group's approach, raising banking service standards from a very low base. It will communicate much better than other banks, knowing how to say sorry when things go wrong, and understanding that it's OK to boast if you do it with your tongue in your cheek.

If the bank's value soars, neither taxpayer nor consumer will begrudge Branson his payday. Like Jamie Oliver and Harry Redknapp, he is the regular bloke whose numbers somehow came up - the sort of thing that might happen to any of us, on a really good day. Bankers, by contrast, are an alien breed.

No wonder Branson doesn't want to be counted among them. No wonder, too, that the brand he really covets is the National Lottery. It is the very crystallisation of the British attitude to wealth, and its acquisition. However tough the economy gets, even come the revolution, its future is rock solid.

Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing and an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... VIRGIN'S HIGHS AND LOWS

1965: Branson's earliest ventures, breeding budgerigars and growing Christmas trees, ended when his mother left the birdcage door open and rabbits ate all the seedlings. Shooting, skinning and selling the rabbits recouped some of the losses.

1968: First issue of Student magazine appeared. Branson ended up turning it into a nationally stocked publication that provided the genesis for a mail-order music business ...

1973: ... that would become Virgin Records.

1984: Virgin Atlantic began flying between Gatwick and Newark.

1994: Virgin Cola tried to take on the Big Two. A strong start soon waned; now, even Virgin Trains no longer sells it.

1996: Virgin Brides launched. Despite peaking as Europe's biggest bridal retailer, it eventually ceased trading in 2007, citing intense competition.

2004: Branson promised to bring space travel to the paying public with the announcement of Virgin Galactic. The public is still waiting for the inaugural flight.

2007: Virgin America's maiden flight landed at JFK. The airline boasted many industry firsts, including fleet-wide wi-fi, mood lighting and the ability for passengers to order food and drinks through seatback screens.

2012: Virgin Rocks ... we'll see.

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