How Virgin's top marketer is readying the brand for the day Richard Branson exits

Lisa Thomas, group brand director, Virgin

Few companies can claim a founder as famous as the company itself. Richard Branson is a “gift” with a “spirit [that] is woven into the brand’s purpose and values,” the Virgin website proclaims. Both are so intertwined that, despite no planned exit date, the process of unfurling one from the other has already begun. Virgin’s brand director Lisa Thomas explains how she's readying the brand for the day the eminent founder stands down.

Thomas joined Virgin as its chief brand officer in 2016 from M&C Saatchi, taking control of over 60 brands across myriad sectors in 35 different markets. Though her chief remit is supporting each brand manager in the day-to-day running of these businesses, more recently she’s been investing time into establishing what those brands – and the wider Virgin company – will stand for in the future.

“The Virgin brand is the personification of Richard and it is a massive strength. We present the characteristics of real people – we can make people laugh and have a conversation that’s open and honest. We can experiment and be forgiven if we fail. That helps, it feels like we’re real and not a distant corporate,” she says.

“Where I see my role is as the guardian of the brand. In a world where Richard’s voice may get quieter, how do we make sure that the brand has its own voice? If we think about Richard as separate from the brand, how do we then enable it to stand on its own two feet and embody what Richard is, but through other spokespeople. [At some point] Richard might not be here but how do we thrive?”

New masterbrand strategy

The first step in “thriving” in a post-Richard Branson era has been to establish what the brand stands for now. Thomas led the development of a new ‘masterbrand strategy’ which essentially summarises “the DNA of the brand” and how the other companies in the businesses deliver it in a way that’s different in each sector.

“The new masterbrand strategy has been in action for about a year,” explains Thomas. “It’s not a change in direction but it’s a census of the DNA. We enjoy high levels of awareness and we’re incredibly relevant to our core demographic but that group is obviously aging – so we need to think about how to bring new people with us.”

This plan of action has seen Thomas create more guidance around how new brands are launched to market as well as a more robust framework around how the ‘moments of joy’ – such as champagne given to someone on a Virgin Atlantic flight if it’s their birthday – can be delivered in a more automated way.

“The other thing we’ve been trying to do is surface some of the stories that enable customers to see what’s under the hood,” she says.

“We are also looking at research into what elements of the brand drive, and will continue to drive, customer engagement and make people excited about Virgin and how the different brands interact with each other and then how that affects the overall brand”

A better measure for Brand Purpose

Virgin’s brand purpose is defined as ‘changing business for good’ and, in the face of an every growing number of firms all jumping on the “purpose bandwagon”, Thomas has been trying to bring greater rigor and application to how it manifests across the group.

“Lots of brands talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. The brands that will survive in the future are those that don’t just 'talk' about purpose,” she says.

“We don’t see it as a campaign end-line and there’s real confusion, without beating up my old world, where agencies see purpose as a new word for proposition and they are completely different things. We have to be really careful. You can’t just say you’re a purpose led organisation, you have to do things, you have to be brave.”

She points to Virgin’s move to pull out of F1 sponsorship for e-racing or including sustainability as part of its trademark licensing agreements as examples of those “brave” decisions.

“But it’s a really long journey and it’s easy for brands to shift, like they do propositions, and say ‘this week my purpose is this, and then the next week it’s that…’ You can’t do that; you have to accept that being a purpose-led organisation is really hard and not beat yourself up if you don’t get over the first hurdle. You have to keep going.”

Among Thomas’ ambitions for the business is drawing a line between how its ‘purpose’, and the efforts to actually bring it to life, then translate into topline growth. As such, measuring the tangible outcomes of being purpose led, instead of relying on vanity metrics, is of increasing importance.

“What we are trying to look for and haven’t unearthed yet, from a purpose point of view, is something that looks at how purpose drives growth.”

It echoes what an increasing number of brand bosses are saying. John Rudaizky, chief marketing officer at EY, for example is trying to find the right commercial metrics to measure purpose as well as encourage the City to understand its value.

“I’m definitely interested in finding a way [to do that],” Thomas continues. “I have been talking to John about Virgin's 100% human network and how to evolve it.”

Bringing structure to innovation

Like any business which is founder-led, the blessing of entrepreneurialism can also be a curse, and one of the biggest challenges the business faces is the sheer volume of ideas coming down the pipelines.

“Every day [Richard] wakes up with a new idea. This business has been born out of a culture where ‘no idea is a bad idea’ and being absolutely encouraged to have ideas and follow them through,” she says.

She says at the group level, where she sits, the business is a “microcosm” of this; she can’t focus on any one business and the ideas coming out so she’s across all of them.

“The complexity is the biggest challenge and I’m afraid I’m applying a fairly classic model to understanding what our priorities are, setting plans against them and trying to get people to focus on the key ones,” she says.

While the “test and learn” model is one she actively encourages she wants to bring a degree of separation to innovation and the day-to-day processes.

Earlier this year, Lisa Thomas told The Drum that she was embarking on a group-wide creative review in an effort to "raise the creative bar". Read the full story here.

Thomas will also be speaking at The Drum's Pitch Perfect conference later this year.

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