Richard Branson hails salt & pepper pots as Virgin Atlantic's secret advertising weapon

Branson flying into Adobe Summit

For his keynote speech at Adobe Summit, Sir Richard Branson chose not to celebrate the traditional and digital marketing successes of his businesses. Instead, he cited reactive PR stunts as the key to cementing Virgin as a brand of ‘experience’.

The entrepreneur, who launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, described how both his irreverent spirit and scrupulous attention to detail led to the accidental creation of one of the brand’s “best advertising” campaigns.

“I remember that one day my chief accountant was saying: ‘Everyone’s stealing our salt and pepper pots [off the planes]’ – they’re little windmills, people found them very attractive – ‘and it’s costing us, I don’t know, $3m a year’,” Branson regaled.

“So he suggested we take the salt and pepper pots off the airline. But instead of doing that we just wrote under the salt and pepper pots, ‘Pinched from Virgin Atlantic’. We got some of the best advertising we could at everyone’s dinner table.”

The brand went on to build a social media campaign around the stolen shakers, encouraging consumers to post pictures of their swag with the hashtag #pinchedfrom.

While no doubt a slap in the face to the airline’s agencies, the anecdote illustrates how Branson still prizes the opportunistic PR stunts that brought him notoriety in the 80s and 90s. Adobe’s predominantly American audience lapped up further tales from the period, such as the time Virgin hijacked the British Airways London Eye as it failed to lift off the ground.

“Before the internet ... if you were taking on a bigger competitor you had to come up with fun ideas to pull their tail and make sure you got on the front pages, and weren’t a little anecdote on the back,” he said.

Branson also attributed the success of Virgin Atlantic – “our curious little airline” – to its attention to detail, a trait that comes direct from the mind of its founder. He explained how still to this day he carries around a notebook in which to jot down comments from passengers and airline staff.

“Frequently taking note of the little things has become one of the keys to our success,” he said. “As a leader, always be a good listener. Never rest on your laurels.”

The mogul added the name ‘Virgin’ implies a certain inexperience, one that he is proud of. In entering new sectors with the brand, he spins naivety as “a clean slate to work with”.

For Branson, it’s “an approach that keeps your mind fresh and an approach that allows you to look at problems differently” – and an approach that’s kept him driving down the notably bumpy road of Virgin Galactic (which, after 14 years, is still to actually enter space.)

“There’s a little lonely car going around at the moment and it’s going to need some company," Branson quipped. “So watch this space over the next few months.”

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