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Thu 13 Aug 2009 04:00 AM

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Branson’s still the PR king

There's a leaf that a few Gulf-based CEOs could take out of Sir Richard Branson's book, Anil Bhoyrul says.

In 1998, during an interview with Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, I asked him what the secret was to starting billion dollar companies. "I'll tell you one day," he said.

Two years later, I was waiting to get off the first ever Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Las Vegas, when I saw Branson at the front - getting dressed as Elvis Presley. His mother, who was also on the flight, looked at him in horror. "What on earth are you doing?" she asked.

A grinning Branson spotted me and said: "That question you once asked me about what it takes to create a billion dollar company - erm, I'm afraid this is the answer."

Branson was right - the power of PR cannot be underestimated. That same year, thanks largely to his Elvis stunt, Virgin Atlantic became the most talked about company in the US.

And this month, the serial entrepreneur has done it again. Not everyone - in fact probably no-one - ever thought that his commercial space venture Virgin Galactic would be a serious financial proposition when the name was first registered ten years ago by its charismatic president Will Whitehorn.

But after Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments took a third of the company for $280m, Virgin Galactic now has a staggering $900m valuation. Not bad for a commercial space company that hasn't sent anyone into space yet.

But Branson's gift for PR, and Whitehorn's passion for the project, has resulted in the company taking some 300 bookings from wannabe astronauts. Between them, they have coughed up $60m in cash.

What other brand in the world could persuade people to part with $200,000 each, no questions asked?

I can't think of a single one. My colleague Damian Reilly previously wrote in this columnon the revenue potential for Virgin Galactic. But the real work has already been done - the public trusts the brand.

And why do they do that? It's very simple: they trust the boss. They see him as an honest, open, ‘good bloke'. They love his PR stunts, and when things go wrong for him in business, they desperately want him to succeed rather than gleefully revelling in his failure.

All this is down to the public perception of Branson and the Virgin Group. Whatever they do, everyone will end up liking, following and ultimately buying it. That's why Virgin Galactic is sure to be a great success.

In 2006, when Branson came to Dubai to help launch the company, there were a dozen people queing up outside Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai to meet him. Each one of them had a cheque for $200,000 in their pocket. All that great PR, from the very top, is clearly now paying dividends.

There is a leaf here that a few Gulf-based CEOs could take out of Branson's book. Let's face it, good PR isn't something you would instantly associate with most Arab companies. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but generally the culture of openness and transparency is still alien to many here.

Without naming names, some of the region's biggest and most prominent CEOs would never dare to meet their customers, let alone listen to them.

 Apart from the yearly financial report - if that - they do very little to market themselves. As the CEO of one of the region's biggest companies told me recently: "Nobody knows my name and I like it that way. I prefer to let my products do the talking."

In a period of boom, that may work perfectly well. But the world has changed dramatically in the past eight months, and the region's bosses need to change as well. Even if that means dressing up as Elvis.

Also Read:Rocket man

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marcus 10 years ago

good topic anil, at last digression from real estate. You see when someone asked the CEO of one of the companies of Fortune 500 which has been CONSISTENTLY doing better than general market for 15+ yrs "What's the difference between you and Donal Trump? I mean not many ppl know yo by the name and many know Donald." He blinked and said "He is a show horse and I am a plow horse". You see Donald is in BAD shape at the moment and he is facing his third bankruptcy. When ever he talks he tells "I ,I, I" . Ask Warren Buffet , he will use "we i.e his company". The difference between the two are one is humble other is show off. Fast forward 30 yrs from now will the companies they built stand against the test of time? think again. Warren Buffet barely spends 5 hrs in his corporation, Berkshire where as we know Donald has been bankrupt three times! The same was almost the case with Virgin, ppl may invest in his company cos of Branson , his employees depend on him to make decisions ,the moment Branson passes away , the employees devoid of direction will mess up Virgin which HAS ALWAYS been the case, read Lee Iacocca's POST management, Henry Singleton , BRILLIANT CEO of Teledyne (conglomerate of 300+ companies) etc... compare these flash horses to these Herb Kelleher (CEO of South West airlines) , Ken Iverson (Nucor), Warren buffet. none of them did PR , ME ME ME....... They were humble and they built companies which stood against the test of time. NOW u must be wondering HOW IN THE WORLD u never heard these names....cos papers like Forbes , FT etc give coverage to flashy donald , mittal, lee type of ppl.. So the CEO you spoke to was probably right in saying "Nobody knows my name and I like it that way. I prefer to let my products do the talking." Cos he is confident that he built a great company which doesnt need begging for validation.

iPaw 10 years ago

Amazing article as always anil, and an even interesting story by marcus :)