High-Flying PR: Keeping Brand Close To the Vest is Key for Global Company

Virgin Alantic CEO Richard Branson is not your typical boss. How many male company presidents would slip into a wedding gown to launch a bridal company spin-off, even if some ink seemed a guarantee? Probably just Branson. The billionaire kept the U.K. press buzzing when he donned a dress to launch subsidiary Virgin Bride in December 1996, after dishing out about $1.6 million for the debut of one of his hundred-plus privately held companies. Today, Virgin Bride brings in about $3.6 million in annual revenue at an 80 percent growth rate. But it isn't cash alone that makes Branson more than a maverick as well as a marketer's dream-come-true. Regardless of the industry, Branson provides a lesson in brand management any corporation can emulate, or at the least, investigate. Under Branson's direction, Virgin Bride keeps close ties with its customers and uses the feedback it gets to add new services and court the trade press (each time a new designer comes on board, the media's alerted.) And it manages its PR and marketing efforts internally so that its brand is handled by the people who know it best. "We're a very niche market, and I think predominantly we understand our customers best," says Marketing Director Ailsa Petchey. "That's the main reason we don't outsource communications to an agency anymore. We're very aware, very protective, of our brand." Petchey also is regularly exposed to key audiences on the business-unit levels, something that's atypical for many in marketing and PR. "For instance, I'm also one of the buyers and I work closely with our vendors so I can work with them on promotions," she adds. On the PR front, that's not to say Virgin Bride never used an outside agency. While Petchey was on maternity leave, it hired Anderson Whitehall, London, for about $41,000 and during an eight-month stint. Since August, she has been back in the PR driver's seat, controlling the approximately $240,000 Virgin Bride has allocated for marketing, media relations and external communications this year. But Petchey isn't just a marketing director. She's a defacto keeper-of-the-brand, a business philosophy Virgin Bride attempts to impart to all of its 45 employees, and hopefully, to the world at large. Like its parent company, taking risks is part of the brand image. Virgin whips the business world into noticing its branding philosophies, even if they are at times outlandish. (In one of its latest stunts, it's painting one Virgin plane with an Austin Powers image to promote the new movie to help the company build a presence in the U.S. market. The move is part of an ad campaign and the company's riding a crest of related publicity.) "Virgin is a terrific lifestyle brand. In Britain, the brand enjoys more than 95 percent name recognition," says Henry Harteveldt, director of marketing for Internet Travel Network. "Virgin has been phenomenal in looking at established industries and businesses from a new perspective," Harteveldt adds. "They are very, very impressive considering some of the businesses they've gone after, but their customer relations success comes from interactivity, from creating a feeling. Brands are reflections of how we view ourselves. Virgin has done a better job at getting at striking an emotional chord than most companies." All in the Family At Virgin Bride, employees are instrumental to extending the Virgin brand. Through contact with customers, they helped the company extend beyond selling bridal accouterments to opening in February 1998 an events department which handles everything from the cake and florist to securing the photographer, caterer and venue. It's a concept that's netting the company publicity and brand recognition. Virgin Bride won a trade award, "Bridal Buyer Retailer Award for Best Bridal Emporium 1999," given by European bridal magazine Bridal Buyer. "Our trade relationships are very important, especially with the press," says Petchey. "We'd like to be seen as a contemporary company. We want to give people the license to do fun things - I'm sure you heard that when Kate Winslet was married, she went to a pub and had bangers and mash. We want to do progressive things like that, but our take on the PR side is key: make sure it's very Virgin, very branded." Branson has spun off unrelated companies with the same zeal Trump has leveraged his name, but all of his companies (whether Virgin Bride, Virgin Cola, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Interactive, Virgin Rail) are based on Branson's brand formula: innovation;a new approach; customer service;quality; andchallenging the market. (The recipe's not locked in a safe in Atlanta, though.) "When we put Virgin Bride out there in the market, we really couldn't, and still can't, be sure how to gauge reaction externally since the name is a little different," adds Petchey. "So we go to our customers to find out what they're thinking. In the first nine months we were open, for instance, we queried our brides and refurbished our store based on what they said." Even beyond PR and customer relations borders, brands are as hot as they've ever been. Fortune Magazine in its May 10 issue gave Branson ink (along with other innovators such as Wendy's Dave Thomas) as a brand builder who is synonymous with the very brands he builds. "Richard keeps up with how we're doing on a regular basis," Petchey says. "Every now and again, he pops in and kisses the brides and mothers when he comes in and they're bowled over. He's a charismatic man." Petchey's advice if your CEO has a little less panache than Branson? Convey your brand message in all of your communication with constituent audiences, whether they're customers or shareholders. And if you don't know what your brand stands for, conduct surveys and find out. Without a sense of what your brand means, you'll never be able to control its reputation and value. (Henry Harteveldt, 650/614-6387; VB, 011/44/171-766-9009) Building Brand Loyalty One Employee At a time Petchey's pull at Virgin isn't just her marketing talent. It was actually Petchey who came up with the concept of Virgin Bride after helping some friends plan a wedding and realizing there was a gap in the U.K. market. British laws were changing in April 1995 to allow marriages at sites other than churches and the registrar's office. Petchey wasn't aware of any high-profile company tapping into that new market, so she wrote a letter to Branson in November. He answered in December. They met with him in February and he gave her four weeks off from her job as a Virgin Atlantic flight attendant to research the project, even allowing her access to his office and secretary. In August 1995, the company decided to approach the idea from a retail perspective (selling gowns and tuxedos, for instance) and the business opened during the winter of 1996. "It could have been the worst or the best day of my life when I met with Branson in Holland Park," Petchey recalls. "It was the best."

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