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Virgin Group:

Headquarters: London

Ownership: Branson family

Leadership: Richard Branson, 46, chairman and founder; Brad Rosser, 38, director of corporate management

Sales: $2.8 billion

Profit: Estimated $182 million

Marketing budget: $80 million

Ad agencies: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, Manning Gottlieb Media, The Design Clinic and Consolidated Communications; all in London

Biggest challenge: Make Virgin a global brand; enter new product categories, including jeans and cosmetics, in 1997.

[London] Virgin Group isn't a big spender on advertising, preferring to rely on the kind of public relations appeal that landed Richard Branson on the cover of Time magazine last July. Regardless, Mr. Branson frequently pops up in other people's ads.

He was one of the celebrities featured in an international American Express campaign by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, London. In a commercial that aired last year, Mr. Branson was filmed at home talking about how it's possible to have an idea in the morning that can be up and running by afternoon. To illustrate his point, there was as much footage showing people at a Virgin Megastore and flying Virgin Atlantic as there was of Mr. Branson talking about using his AmEx card.

And he isn't just on TV. A full-page print ad for Forbes magazine in late 1996 stated: "Richard Branson picked up his first copy of Forbes aboard a trans-Atlantic flight in 1972." The ad lauds this Forbes reader as airline mogul, adventurer, music industry magnate and marketer.

Another recent magazine ad, for the Conqueror paper products company, described Virgin Atlantic's attention to detail in serving ice cream to accompany in-flight movies. Conqueror, too, gives that extra care that "will get you noticed on both sides of the Atlantic," the ad said.

"PR is at the heart of the company," said Will Whitehorn, Virgin Group's corporate affairs director for 11 years. "If we do things badly, it will reflect badly on the image of the brand more than [it would for] most other companies. [For us,] advertising is a subset of PR, not the other way around."

It seems to work. The Evening Standard, London's afternoon newspaper, just polled its readers on their choice for mayor of London. The winner: Mr. Branson.

Throwing good parties does help his appeal. Each year over three consecutive summer weekends, Mr. Branson gives a party for Virgin Atlantic's top 3,000

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