As the countdown begins to the first Virgin Galactic flight following the successful test run over the Mojave Desert last month, the project’s former president Will Whitehorn gave us his views on Branson, branding and brand bravery.
Whitehorn joined the Virgin Group in 1987 and was made president of Virgin Galactic in 2004, putting him in as good a position as any to understand just how important that test run was.
“It was incredible,” he says. “It was like witnessing seven years work take flight and I am hugely excited about what this will mean for the project.”
Speaking on Virgin’s brand evolution, from a record shop to a global entity headed, quite literally, out of this world, Whitehorn said: “Virgin now has the power to cross to a variety of corporate structures and operates on the basis of branded private equity. It has evolved into a globally recognised brand associated with entrepreneurialism, competition, value, quality, innovation and a sense of fun.”
He continued: “As long as innovation and ambition is at the heart of business growth and survival, teamed with a defined view of ownership and management to support the business clearly, the opportunities are limitless. Red Bull's bravery does have some similar cross-over in the Virgin brand style and I admire their brand building and record-breaking stunts.
“We can admire other brands in dealing with their own market conditions. For example, Apple has remained at the forefront of a tempestuous IT industry, leveraging itself by being resilient and determined.”
So how can branding give an organisation competitive leverage? For Whitehorn, “when launching a new product, a recognised brand can spend around 10 per cent less than other brands on marketing if the brand lives up to its reputation."
He added: “So based on this, reputation can be the key component between success and failure, and in order to craft such a strong reputation, you must engage consistently and honestly with your customers, especially through the bad times, to instil faith and remove uncertainty.”
Reputation is certainly something that precedes Virgin’s founder and chairman, Richard Branson. When asked what he had taken from his six years working with Branson Whitehorn simply said: “Don't take no for an answer in business or in life.”
“Don't be afraid of trying new things in the face of possible failure but know when to stop if things don't materialise. Think about the consequences of your actions and never say anything you wouldn't say in a court of law. Finally, reputation is everything and worth protecting,” he said.
Will Whitehorn is the current chairman of Speed Communications following his retirement as president of Virgin Galactic in 2011.