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Daring Young Man and His 'Flying' Machine

September 11, 1997

Richard Branson built his London-based Virgin Group into the largest private company in Britain in part through creative marketing and shrewd publicity stunts. A master of self-promotion, Branson has drawn attention to himself and his companies with such adventures as a recent bid to circle the globe in a balloon. He is also a commercial pitchman for Virgin, appearing at promotional events and in print advertisements.

Founded as a mail-order record company 27 years ago, Virgin now encompasses goods and services ranging from cola drinks to wedding dresses, broadcasting to financial services. The 47-year-old Briton's Virgin empire also includes hotel and restaurant development, Internet services, movie theaters, radio and television stations, and his boldest venture, a transatlantic airline. Branson will soon launch a clothing and cosmetics line.

The entrepreneur is still best known in the United States for his Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Megastore, which sells CDs, videos and books. Six of Virgin's eight U.S. stores are in California, but the company is planning to open nine new mega-stores in other states over the next few months.

Branson discussed his marketing philosophy and business plans during a recent interview with Times staff writer George White at the opening of a mega-store at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. What follows is an edited transcript.

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Q: Explain your marketing philosophy.

A: There are thousands of stores around the world and there are thousands of business openings. The press has a job to do. For example, a paper sends a photographer down to see a new Virgin store being opened. If I turn up in a suit and I merely sit there sipping sherry or champagne the whole time, the photographer's going to go away without a picture. We don't get our story on the front page.

However, make a fool of oneself occasionally--dress up in a pilot's outfit if one's launching a new airline, or wear a bridal gown--it makes people laugh and smile. Our employees work enormously hard and the least I can do is make sure that the world knows about it.

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Q: The Virgin name is on the vast majority of your businesses. Do you see the Virgin name itself as a marketing tool?

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A: Yes, we want the Virgin name to be synonymous with quality and good value. If people who fly our airline have a good experience, they're more likely to try the mega-store. So when we promote one product or service, it rubs off on our other products. However, in America Virgin has still a long way to go before it's a household name.

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Q: You're closely associated with Virgin. When people think of Virgin, they think of Richard Branson. Is that good?

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A: Well, as a child my parents told me to keep a low public profile and to let what you do in life speak for itself. I followed that philosophy up until about 13 years ago when we started the airline. At that time, Freddie Laker [of the cut-price Laker Airways] told me: "The only way you're going to beat American Airlines, United Airlines and British Airways is to get out and present yourself to promote your business." I suppose things like my boating trips and ballooning trips have a positive effect on the companies.

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Q: On the other hand, if something were to go awry in your personal life, wouldn't that hurt the companies?

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A: I think there's always the potential downside if you build yourself up to build the companies up because there's always the danger that you could have a big fall. I could do something stupid and fatal on a ballooning or boating trip, but the Virgin name is now strong enough to withstand something like that.

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Q: How was the hot air balloon adventure good for your businesses?

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A: Well, we don't have "British Airways" on the balloon, we have the Virgin name on the balloon. It's helped put Virgin on the map worldwide. "60 Minutes" did a profile of Virgin in America. I suspect they wouldn't have done the profile on our businesses if it wasn't for my boating and ballooning activities.

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Q: You're known for outlandish promotions. What would you say are your most successful stunts?

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A: We constructed what appeared to be a UFO and flew over London at 4 a.m. on April Fool's Day [in 1989]. It was so well-constructed that [the government] sent out the army and the air force.

Also, when we launched Virgin's bridal shops, off came my beard and mustache and I found myself in this extremely sexy bridal dress throwing flowers to people. Everyone knows we're in the bridal business now.

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Q: This new store at Caesars Palace is part of a dramatic new expansion for Virgin Megastores. Given the fierce and increasing competition in the music and video store business, why are you expanding so rapidly?

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