Sir Richard Branson: ‘No one gave our curious airline much of a fighting chance’

Entrepreneurship for Sir Richard Branson essentially means finding ways to make people’s lives better.  Speaking at the 2018 Adobe Digital Marketing Summit, he was of the view that understanding people’s experiences – the good and the bad – should take centre stage in guiding all business decision making and processes. Quite simply, if a customer experience is full of frustrations, creating a new better experience is the way to go, he told audience members.

Branson added that until this very day, he keeps a handy notebook in his pocket whenever he boards a flight.

“When I get out I listen to passengers, to cabin staff and  I write my thoughts and experiences down and action them the next day. Because these thoughts and experiences are invaluable. They help us keep air travel fun, friendly and entertaining,” he said.

“Frequently taking notes of these seemingly little things, have become key to our success,” he said. He added that after 50 years of being an entrepreneur, one thing he “knows to be true” is that “we all have the responsibility to listen to the experiences around us”.

Virgin as a company, keeps this as a core part of its DNA across all of its businesses, from airlines to gyms and hotels.

“Never rest on your laurels. […]It’s the small things that make the difference”.

The Virgin Airline story

As customers’ expectations change, experiences must evolve to. Branson described the airline industry of the 1980s to be “very dull and an uncomfortable affair”. It had very little competition and big carriers had “no intention to improve or innovate”.

So when, Branson and his team launched Virgin Atlantic, they needed to be different. The company had one lone jumper jet, which was competing with 400 BA planes and many other big airlines.

You could say that no one gave our curious airline much of a fighting chance.

And yet, today survived and is now thriving.

“How did we do it? For starters we changed the experience of flying. Flying Virgin Atlantic changed eight hours of transatlantic boredom into a bit of excitement and fun,” he said.

The team reimagined check-ins and entertainment and seat back videos. It also took into consideration the food and comfort and all the experiences that can make the journey either forgettable or memorable. Soon after, many other airline industry brands followed suit.

He added that most important lessons for him comes from school of life and Virgin’s inexperience in its early days gave it a clean slate to work on and an inspiration and drive  to create new experiences every day.

“It’s an approach that lets you look at things afresh and see things differently. We seemed to be quite good at it and all other airline tried to follow our path,” he said.

 But I’d like to believe we’re still a little better than the rest.

What’s next?

Of course, the greatest experience for Branson is the one he has yet to conquer, he says. That is to head to space – which would really give Virgin a different view of the world altogether from way up there.

“Virgin Galactic is a dream is what we are working on for 14 years,” he said, adding:

Sending people to space carries the hope and dream of all those who have worked for us over the years.

Branson added that there is “an additional thought” that he spends his time on these days which is to find ways to give back to the communities and planet.

“As a business we not only have responsibility to create better experience for staff and customers, we must never forget to take care of our environment and communities.”

However, in his view many businesses, “do just the opposite”, destroying the ecosystem and depleting natural resources of communities. He added:

This is driven by short term gains which seem indifferent to any long term consequences.

“It often seems like we are less willing to learn from experiences that should matter most in our lives.” he added. This is what led him to launch the non-profit foundation Virgin Unite in 2014 to unite people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world.

“What we’ve tried to do is use our entrepreneurial skills to catalyse positive change and action in the world,” he said.

Adobe paid for the journalist’s trip to Adobe Summit 2018, held in Las Vegas.

Rezwana Manjur
Southeast Asia Editor
Marketing Magazine Singapore
Rezwana Manjur, a true blue city girl and complete social animal, spends half her time sifting through advertising scandals, and the other half testing out brands' retail marketing strategies at the mall. She enjoys traveling and fantasising over the charming lads on hit TV show Mad Men. Most weekends, she turns nocturnal, except when brunch comes into play.

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