Thank you for all the questions you have sent —the response has been great. I hope the variety I am answering today will provide interesting advice. Keep your questions coming!
Q: I’m an avid follower of Virgin inventions as well as a marketeer. How do I improve my sales? I sell life insurance and would like to build a company from scratch.
A: The key to improving sales is to make sure your business or product stands out in the marketplace. We have always tried to ensure that Virgin products are innovative, that they offer good value and that there’s a great attitude about service. When you have those basics right, you need to make sure people know about your business: Too many great businesses remain well-kept secrets for too long and never get the attention they need to grow and thrive.
Make sure your advertising, your public relations and your general marketing are direct and believable. They also need character. From the early days of Virgin we always looked to surprise, entertain and sometimes shock people with our advertising.
One reason was that we had lower marketing budgets than most of our rivals. Another was that we always felt we were the newcomers—the underdogs. In music, this approach was easier than in some other businesses, since we had edgier bands and were willing to take risks on acts that others were not.
For our fledgling airline business—a totally new area for Virgin, and one where people wanted to know we were going to survive and be safe—the approach was a bigger risk. Still, we needed to get the best bang for our buck, so we used me to make the headlines with stunts and stories. We also made sure our advertisements were funny and attention-grabbing. It worked. Immediately we created a character for the airline that was cheeky and irreverent.
We have used this tone for many of our businesses ever since.
Of course, cheek and fun are not appropriate to all industries. We used a very different approach in the early advertisements for our financial services. Those messages were memorable for their directness. They were very hard-hitting. To win people’s trust, we emphasized our transparency and openness. We also came up with great products, such as our “One Account”—a checking and a mortgage account rolled into one—to ensure that we built sales and customers quickly.
Q: I’m opening a transport company to meet demand generated by small businesses that need to sell their production in a fast, efficient way, in southern Brazil. In a country with a high degree of entrepreneurship as well as bureaucracy, do you think the government and major financial institutions should encourage the development of small businesses, usually family businesses?
A: I think a transport business focused on meeting the needs of small businesses is a great idea, especially in a developing market.
You want to help “small businesses sell their production in a fast, efficient way.” How are you planning to do it? Are you going to use fuel-efficient or hybrid vans and trucks? Are you planning to do short runs with small loads at a cheaper price than your competitors? You must define what your unique difference will be.
I am heartened by your focus on small businesses and your desire to be efficient and fast—this should help you combat the larger players in your field.
As for whether governments should help small and family businesses, definitely yes! I am a big advocate of governments doing all they can to help small businesses get off the ground by making sure that red tape involved in starting and running companies is not onerous.
Banks should be encouraged to provide fair lending, and tax incentives should be properly structured for business builders. When I started 40 years ago, there were fewer obstacles for an aspiring entrepreneur. Small, medium-sized and family businesses are the lifeblood of any economy. They create jobs, competition and innovation. A thriving country should have lots of small businesses springing up.
Q: What are the key considerations for a new participant entering the market where a lot of sharks are swimming and holding their areas?
A: A new business must be well thought through and have a clear service, product or plan. You should be able to demonstrate a real difference to the existing “sharks” early on and keep driving that message home to your potential customers. At Virgin, we look for markets where the customers are not well served by the dominant player and where we can make a difference with a well-priced service—one that usually has a bit of edge.
Our airline businesses are a prime example of swimming with sharks. Look at Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Blue and Virgin America. All compete against much bigger rivals and hold their own pretty well. The Virgin three have distinct character, great products, cheeky advertising and loyal customers. Virgin America has been named “best domestic airline” twice in a row by readers of Conde Nast Traveller magazine, thanks to its modern planes, excellent service and fabulous crew. This is a winning formula that allows a new player to thrive and survive in even the most fiercely competitive markets.
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. Your comments and queries on this column, which will run every week, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org