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Sun 6 May 2007 12:00 AM

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And for my next trick, you'll think you're in space

Sir Richard Branson may well have pulled off another great marketing stunt.

There is a neat trick I remember Sir Richard Branson pulling seven years ago.

He had just flown 300 journalists to Las Vegas, to celebrate the launch of the first Virgin Atlantic flight between London and the desert city. Trouble is, nobody in Las Vegas really cared. Then, in the middle of the night above the Las Vegas sky, a helicopter appeared and out jumped an Elvis Presley lookalike from 1km above.

It was Branson - who landed onto a stage, and announced "I'm back!" - before singing the Elvis classic ‘Viva Las Vegas.' In an instant, he became a local hero. And more importantly, the whole of America, not just Las Vegas, was talking about Virgin Atlantic that night.

Earlier this week, Branson finally announced the first ever Emirati who will fly into space in two years time aboard Virgin Galactic.

I suspect pulling this off will be one of his neatest tricks ever - a fabulous stunt at great cost, which will serve just one purpose: To further the Virgin brand.

Let's look at facts: For US$200,000 Virgin Galactic will take you into space. Well, not quite.

It's a sub-orbital flight that heads just above the earth's atmosphere, allowing you to experience weightlessness for a few minutes. I seem to remember paying US$3000 to see the earth's curvature on a British Airways Concorde flight nine years ago. For the extra US$297,000, Virgin Galactic gives you a few minutes of weightlessness. Great!

Not that anyone seems bothered with the details. So far, at least 400 rich kids have come up with the cash - meaning US$80m in revenues upfront. That already puts the whole project at break-even. When you consider that Branson's closest rival Space Adventures charges US$20m a go (and don't forget that Space Adventures really does take you into space on board the International Space Station), there's little doubt that Virgin Galactic will soon capture the market and be a serious moneymaking venture. Add to that there are 45 billionaires in the Arab world, and at least 100 other individuals with more than US$30m each, and there will be no shortage of takers.

But the real point here is that, whether it made a dollar or not, this is going to be the greatest marketing stunt of all time, and executed by one of the world's greatest marketing men.

As Branson knows better than anyone, brand is everything. It's why Stelios Haji-Ioannou's hotel ventures will work - punters know and appreciate the ‘easy' brand he created.

They know it's cheap and cheerful. It's why Ferraris always sell - buyers know they are getting history and luxury all rolled into one. And it's why Virgin has been so successful - be it health clubs, aeroplanes, holidays or even credit cards, you know you are getting something a little extra special. You know with Virgin the service is often better and more ‘with the times'.

Or at least you know that in the West. Sending the first Emirati into space will give the Virgin brand unlimited publicity and make it a cut above the rest in this region. The benefits will be felt at Virgin Atlantic, and for that matter, every other product Branson ever wants to launch in the Middle East. Watch out British Airways, watch out Gulf Air, watch out Emirates Airline.

As I said earlier, this will be his neatest trick ever. Though I am rather suspicious as to whether the Emirati really has paid US$200,000 for the privilege.

The other way around would make more sense.

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