Will Whitehorn – past President of Virgin Galactic -- has led the dream to turn commercial passenger spaceflight into reality. Now chairman of London PR agency Speed Communications, Will shares insights on brand-building, ambition and innovation.
How did Virgin’s brand change over the time that you worked for the company?
Virgin’s brand was transformed from a cool, independent youth-music brand into a global reputational brand associated with entrepreneurialism, innovation, quality, and value. One of the few companies wholly owned by the founder, Sir Richard Branson, is Virgin Enterprises – the company that owns the global Virgin brand.
What does Virgin’s story tell us about the power of ambition and innovation?
Simply that there are no limits to ambition, as long as the organizational structure and products can be innovative. Innovation is the lifeblood of business growth and survival. But so is having a management and ownership structure to match. Decentralized decision-making and management with rigid control of the brand is as much an engine for growth as imaginative innovation in products and services.
What did you learn from Sir Richard Branson?
First, examine everything and don’t take no for an answer until all the questions raised have been properly thought through. Second, don’t be scared to try new ideas. But know when to call a halt if they don’t work, because there is no embarrassment in honest failure. Third, never do anything in business that might give you a sleepless night. And never say anything you would not be happy to say in a court of law. In the long term, reputation is everything.
In what ways can branding give an organization a competitive edge?
To be successful, a strong, recognized brand launching a new product will have to spend roughly 10% less than other brands on marketing, providing the product lives up to the brand. In the case of a new area altogether, reputation is the absolute differentiator between success and failure. Virgin Galactic could not have sold US$80m of deposits for space flights without brand trust for safety, innovation and delivery that the Virgin name brings.
How do you go about the task of building, improving or transforming the brand?
Consistency has to be built into all of your consumer dealings. That builds trust. Like markets, consumers hate uncertainty. You also have to engage honestly and consistently in bad times as well as good. If people perceive, for example, that there is an Apple or Virgin approach to doing something which they see as the right way to deliver the product or service, then that brand has won half the battle. The other half of the battle is maintaining that perception.
Other than Virgin, what brands do you admire and why?
Apple, Google, Red Bull and Manchester United, to name a few – and all for different reasons. Apple because it has been incredibly resilient and determined through constant change in the IT industry, and always has kept faith with a core set of brand principles. Google for the rapidity with which it built a business model and spun it out globally. Red Bull for its bravery in Virgin-style, brand-building adventure and record-breaking stunts. And Manchester United for sheer consistency in its approach to creating a global football phenomenon.
How has globalization affected branding?
Not as much as you might think. Global brands developed in the 19th century, before modern globalization started. But the global information revolution has affected the way brands behave. In our joined-up world., if companies want to maintain their reputation and brand, it is no longer possible for them to treat employees or consumers in different countries in a vastly different way.
Will there come a time when commercial space travel is as routine as taking a holiday to a different continent is today?
Yes. We rely on space and our atmosphere so much that doing as much as we can in space – and therefore outside the atmosphere – will soon become essential as the human population climbs above 10 billion.