As the decade progressed, Virgin forged a major music business. The introduction of the company's mega-store format in London in 1978 was accompanied by an irreverent style of advertising-produced in house-promoting the new entertainment/lifestyle retail outlets.
Launching an airline
It was another six years before the company started mainstream global advertising, with the launch of Virgin Atlantic airlines. Virgin was a different sort of airline—boasting reasonable fares on trans-Atlantic flights with extras such as in-flight massages, ice cream and movies—and its ad campaign, too, was different. Based on parodying competitors whose taglines included Air Canada's "A flight so good you won't want to get off" and British Airways' "World's favourite airline," Virgin aimed to shake up the industry.
Irreverence has always been the company's advertising mantra. For example, one memorable outdoor campaign in 1989 featured an image of Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was about to be extradited to the U.S. on drug charges. The copy read: "The only man who can get to Miami for less than Virgin's £99."
Much of the early Virgin Atlantic advertising was created by Virgin's then in-house marketing director, Chris Moss. While Virgin's corporate advertising work went to agencies such as Still Court Price Twivy DeSouza and Simons Palmer, the decision to put virtually all its advertising in the hands of Rainey, Kelly, Campbell, Roalfe, a WPP Group agency in London, in 1992 represented a more focused corporate approach. The agency was particularly involved in the company's Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile (telephones) and Virgin Trains campaigns.
Virgin's corporate structure developed along the lines of a venture capital organization, with a number of operating companies that are joint ventures. Each Virgin company has its own marketing and public relations unit, and each is responsible for its own advertising and marketing budget. However, cross-group media buying was coordinated in the U.K., where Omnicom subsidiary Manning Gottlieb Media handled 90% of Virgin's U.K. ad spending by the 21st century.
For years Virgin Atlantic claimed the lion's share of ad spending among Virgin units in the U.S., the U.K. and Japan.
For example, in 1999, Virgin Atlantic joined with the producer of the movie "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" to launch a U.S. advertising and promotion campaign, including a Web site that featured a slot machine-style competition to win trans-Atlantic tickets. It was backed by a number of regional newspapers and a billboard campaign in major U.S. cities, and attracted more than 25 million hits on the site.
In 2000, Virgin Atlantic's advertising deliberately sought to use celebrities who did not normally appear in advertising, such as actors Terence Stamp, Helen Mirren, Anna Friel and Simon Callow as well as singer Marianne Faithful.
However, by the mid-1990s, Virgin had launched several consumer-advertising-intensive new businesses that eventually went on to eclipse the airline in spending. Virgin Mobile, with operations in the Far East, Australia and the U.K., was launched in November 1999 with an ad budget that year of $19.4 million. Virgin Direct, the financial services business, was launched in the U.K. in 1995; by 1999, its U.K. advertising budget was $16.2 million. (Virgin Atlantic spent about $14.5 million on advertising that year.)
But Virgin's advertising—even when supported by Mr. Branson's astute marketing magic—has not always been successful. The company's Virgin Clothing venture folded in April 2000 after a two-year effort backed by an extensive print effort to establish the brand in British stores.
The Virgin Group planned to increase its consumer spending even more in the first few years of the new century. Virgin Mobile launched in the U.S. launch, while Virgin Active, which claimed to have become the world's No. 3 health and leisure center operator by membership, with outlets in the U.K. and South Africa, also had U.S. market intentions.
Mr. Branson, who was knighted in March 2000, was directly involved in all Virgin advertising until the early 1990s. By the 21st century, he had limited his participation to major strategic campaigns and those campaigns where his name or image was used, leaving key executives responsible for major decisions and brand management worldwide. But his standing edict and, no doubt, lasting legacy is that ads should be irreverent, witty, fun and different from those of major competitors.
Still, he remained as colorful and bombastic as ever. He hosted his own reality TV series on Fox, "The Rebel Billionaire," in the 2004-05 season.
In early January 2005, Mr. Branson claimed that space tourism would be available in less than three years. He said there were already 13,500 potential passengers for the $190,000 "Virgin Galactic spaceliner" trip. The entrepreneur was having five "spaceliners" built in the U.S. by the team that launched the SpaceShipOne rocket plane in 2004. He signed a $26 million agreement in September 2004 with Mojave Ventures, the company set up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aviation pioneer Burton Rutan that built the rocket plane.
Mojave Ventures plans to use the technology developed for SpaceShipOne, the first privately-developed carrier to go above the 62-mile space barrier in June 2004. Virgin Galactic passengers will spend three to four days training in Virgin's "space camp" in the Mojave Desert in the southwestern U.S., before going up in the mother ship Eve for three hours.