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Putting the fun in business
Virgin’s recent move into banking through Virgin Money’s acquisition of the British bank Northern Rock has prompted many to ask whether it will be possible for us to retain our company’s sense of fun and cheekiness in an otherwise tradition-bound, sober industry. After all, is it appropriate to be anything but serious when you are managing people’s money?
The British banking industry is ripe for change: a handful of banks has dominated the sector for almost a century, which has led to a loss of focus on the customer. The recent financial crisis made things worse as depositors began to worry about how banks were being run. Yes, managing one’s money involves hugely important decisions, but we think it should also bring customers a sense of empowerment and some enjoyment.
As we have planned our revamp of the bank, we have confronted many questions about emphasising responsibility and safety while retaining the direct and warm style that Virgin businesses are renowned for. This has reminded me of Virgin Atlantic’s early days, when we needed to convince a sometimes wary public that we were capable of running a safe and reliable—as well as entertaining—airline.
So how do you inject a sense of fun into a stolid industry? It starts with earning your customers’ trust through your everyday interactions. We emphasise open communications, responsive customer service, attention to detail and transparent practices: Together, these give us the freedom to be more daring in our communications.
And over the years, we have had a lot of fun with our brand and amused and entertained people. If you are thinking about how to generate this sort of relationship with your customers, here are three tips on how to achieve it:
1. React quickly, with humour
Just as the opportunity for a witty remark passes quickly, the moments in which a company can connect with its customers are brief. Your marketing and public relations teams should not only be planning next year’s campaign and launching this year’s promotion; they should also be ready to address topical issues in ways that create a stir about your brand or product.
In 1999, when Virgin Atlantic and British Airways were in a heated—and, at times, nasty— competition for customers, BA sponsored the London Millennium Wheel. This would become the tallest Ferris wheel in the world for some years, and was under construction in London beside the Thames.
At 5:30 am on the day that the crew working on the project had hoped to raise the wheel on its supports, a Virgin staffer called to tell me that there was a technical problem and that the wheel would not be erected until it was fixed.
Reporters from around the world had assembled for the spectacle. Luckily, we had an airship company just outside London. We scrambled a blimp to fly past with this banner attached: “BA Can’t Get It Up!”
2. Don’t be afraid to stand out
As I have mentioned before, I find it very useful to act as a representative of and spokesman for the Virgin brand, generating publicity in amusing and eye-catching ways. In summer 2010, my children Holly and Sam, entered in the London Marathon, which Virgin Money sponsors. They took part in a successful attempt to set a world record for the most people to finish a marathon while tied together; a human caterpillar of 34 people. The feat was intended to help raise money for 12 children’s charities.
I competed against my kids solo, wearing beautiful red carnival butterfly wings. It provided the media with a lighter moment, and I even managed to beat my young competitors.
We don’t always get it right with our stunts, however. Following Virgin America’s inaugural flight to Las Vegas, our team persuaded me to bungee jump off the top of the Palms Hotel Casino, against my better judgement. The night was very windy and the drop was far, but I did it. I hit the hotel windows a couple of times on the way down and reached the bottom with a bruised backside and a similarly injured ego. So when planning a promotion, use your head!
Also, consider how the campaign might be used in the long-term. To launch Virgin Brides, I shaved off my beard and put on a US$10,000 wedding dress. The photos generated lots of press, but that particular campaign is often used against me by those who want to portray Virgin as less than serious.
3. Sweat the small stuff
Often businesses forget that it’s the little details that reveal the company’s character and distinguish its service. Ours usually add touches of humour; whatever extras you add, they should differentiate your approach from your competitors.
Sometimes the details can become iconic of the brand. Earlier this year, when Virgin Atlantic decided to stop stocking its little plane-shaped salt-and-pepper pots engraved with the words “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” on the bottom, I intervened to save this little flourish: The pots are so treasured that they have become a collector’s item.
For similar reasons, I also asked the airline to bring back the stewardesses’ chic red shoes that had been part of the original uniforms, rather than the black shoes that they were asked to wear more recently. The red shoes are back, and they look great!
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. [email protected]. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the Web site or publication where you read the column..
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