by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) The recent acquisition by Brait of 80% of Virgin Active for a sum of £682m (R12.2bn) puts into perspective the value of the Virgin brand and the particular impact of its unique corporate culture, embodied in the founder himself, Sir Richard Branson.

VirginThe success of Virgin Active in South Africa is profound, given the anecdotal story that Madiba called Branson at the time of Health & Racket going to the wall and asked him to come save the day.

The rest, as they say in the classics, is history — Branson paid attention, took up the opportunity and applied the Virgin magic to build out a great business in this country and one which continues on its phenomenal growth trajectory, both here and internationally, as one component of a highly diversified business.

Resonates compellingly

The story of Virgin and Branson, the character and entrepreneur, is well-documented and manifests in many business-success case studies. What resonates most compellingly is the story of culture — the zest, energy, dynamism, entrepreneurship and tenacity lived by Branson and expressed deeply throughout the business.

Not everything he has touched has turned to gold and that is very much the journey of the entrepreneur; he has, however, displayed a boldness and courage that resonates across the organisation. Who after all, would launch a brand new and untested airline and take on the mighty British Airways… and call it Virgin!

Closely paralleled to this culture has been a deep-seated commitment to customer service and the people who deliver it. When referencing the brand guidelines document, it is more about culture and service than it is about a book of rules and identity policing.

The most important asset

The Virgin ethos suggests that they should be generous in the experiences that are created for customers, looking at the entire customer journey and seeing how to make the pain-points positive. The guidelines are thoughtful and make the experience feel abundant. Furthermore, they focus upon people and culture, highlighting the obvious fact that people are the most important asset in a business and the ultimate reason behind every brand and business success.

The Virgin philosophy suggests that the best people be found to work with and that they should be kept happy and inspired. And, very importantly, fun is emphasised— how many organisations focus on that today?

Staying with the international airline industry for a moment, Ryanair has undergone a change of heart. Long held out as the global benchmark for low-cost airlines and the primary competitor to EasyJet, it has often been accused of being arrogant and brash. This brand was even despised by customers, who begrudgingly used it based upon the sheer attraction of its pricing and for no other reason, certainly not the customer experience.

Changed the business

A year ago a shift in strategy has repositioned the brand and fundamentally changed the business. Michael O’Leary unveiled the ‘Always Getting Better’ plan, in what was deemed a revolutionary change to the organisation, with a focus upon fixing the things that customers don’t like, such as its hard-line cabin baggage allowance and the introduction of allocated seating.

This shift from price to value for money and a move towards a customer focus has lifted results in the last year significantly — it is three times ahead of projected revenue, with a lift in profitability of some 66% — sizeable gains in anyone’s language.

While Ryanair has shifted its emphasis from pure shareholder returns to that of employees and customer service, Virgin has managed to consistently strike the balance between doing good, making money and having fun.

Success in business

This often-complex topic it put into simple perspective and summarised by the brand owner himself:

“Success in business is all about people, people, people. Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage.” — Richard Branson

No matter how else we try to package or rationalise it, the stark reality is that people deliver profit in business — perhaps we should be paying that more attention.

Sean McCoy


Dr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. Sean has been chairperson for the Brand Council of South Africa since 2012. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing on internal branding to MarkLives.


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