PR better than ads:There's a method to Branson's madness

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Held aloft on the shoulders of near-naked male dancers in a New York nightclub, Richard Branson, wearing a pair of nude leggings, a ripped T-shirt and a CD player over his private parts, poses for a bank of photographers.

The stunt to introduce a line of consumer electronics for Target called Virgin Pulse is all in a day's work for PR impresario and Virgin Group Chairman Mr. Branson. But in a fully clothed interview at the Virgin Megastore Cafe in Times Square, the walking brand billboard wonders whether he's getting too old for such shenanigans. "It would be awful to become a parody of oneself. As you get older there's a danger of that," says Mr. Branson, 53.

"In reality, having a bit of fun, not taking oneself too seriously and making a fool of oneself occasionally, has helped put Virgin on the map around the world and I'll continue to do that until we've got someone else who can do it better." But, he says with a laugh, there's no search on for a successor. "I'll probably have to be around another 50 years."

His guest spots on "Friends" and "Baywatch," the balloon races and tank rides down Fifth Avenue have helped to create a strong image of an irreverent brand better than any advertising campaign, he concedes. "A lot of companies haven't realized the importance of free publicity," he says. "Company chairmen are not willing to project themselves. I've obviously taken it to the extreme.

"I think good public relations is far more effective than advertising and it actually makes the public identify with the company as a real thing, whereas advertising is important to get the message across. ... It's time-consuming but it's better value."

ad angles

That said, Virgin Group is keeping plenty of ad agencies busy these days. Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, rolled out Virgin Pulse-themed ads for client Target Stores this month showing a group of Buckingham Palace guards line dancing.

Virgin Atlantic, the company's airline, is also getting something of a makeover from agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, which is preparing to unveil ads in the next couple of weeks.

U.S. success

Fallon, New York, comes in for special praise from Mr. Branson. The agency is working with Virgin Mobile USA, the joint venture wireless service with Sprint Corp.'s Sprint PCS. A separate event this week will celebrate the passing of the 1 million subscriber mark. "It's been a spectacular success," says Mr. Branson, "It is the first consumer brand we broke in America. ... The fun advertising really got the message right."

And those messages tend to carry over across the Virgin portfolio. Privately held Virgin Group has created over 200 companies, employing 25,000, according to its corporate Web site.

The next project for Mr. Branson is to lay the groundwork for a low-cost airline named Virgin USA. Mr. Branson said he is committed to spending around $50 million on the launch. Venture-capital firm Texas Pacific Group has been floated as a possible U.S. partner. Mr. Branson says he's still putting the final touches on the initial business plan.

Mr. Branson says he was offered a 25% stake in Jet Blue-then to be called Virgin Blue-but a deal didn't come off because he wanted a bigger piece of the pie. Virgin Blue is now the name of the company's Australian low-cost airline. According to the Australian Financial Review, Mr. Branson pocketed $5 million in dividends and $4.2 million for leasing the airline the brand name.

Mr. Branson relishes the thrill of being the newcomer, noting that being the underdog allows a marketer to take aim at rivals. "Going on the attack is a good strategy. With Virgin Pulse, people start mentioning us in the same category as Sony." But asked what the secret of good marketing, he says first make the products deliver, "then the marketing becomes quite easy."

Still, a stunt or two doesn't hurt. Mr. Branson asks a reporter for a contact name in Pfizer's marketing department. It seems he wants to ask to have the Viagra logo emblazoned on the tail of a Virgin plane.

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