For many entrepreneurs Richard Branson is the epitome of bold and successful entrepreneurship. His companies are known around the globe for upturning their categories and challenging the status quo. While executives and the press clamor to meet the man himself, far less is written about the unique training ground that his companies have been for entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and marketers. While Harvard Business School gave me an indispensable foundation in general management, Virgin offered unparalleled lessons in building businesses that remain true regardless of industry, audience, or trend.
1. Your product is your most important form of marketing.
Long gone are the days when an ad campaign could hide a multitude of sins. In today’s highly connected world, positive and negative word of mouth spreads like wildfire. Virgin invests in developing stand-out products and services that are measurably different from their competition, and that their customers love with near obsession. Case in point: Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class. No focus group could have foretold the need for business class travel with mood lighting and a stand-up bar. Yet by investing in a measurably different, better product, Virgin can spend 1/10th the funds on advertising that its competition does, and carries a much less costly loyalty program. By focusing on “points of re-evaluation” or experiential touchpoints that differ dramatically from what’s expected in the category, like the spa pool in their airline lounge, or the inflight massage, customers not only begin to think differently about the status quo, but they are more likely to tell their friends. The virtuous cycle of word of mouth begins!
Here’s a technology counterpart: Mint. By focusing on solving a pain point with delightfully elegant UI, Mint experienced record-breaking adoption that led to its acquisition by Intuit only 3 years after its founding. Like Virgin, Mint didn’t invest in costly ad campaigns or even multi-touch nurturing- instead press and word of mouth drove incredible adoption because it made managing finances just.that.easy.
I will never forget the last time a product literally made me shiver. It was 5am and my taxi arrived at the curb at the airport. At that hour, I was clumsily gathering my luggage and fishing for cash. The cab driver noticed my disheveled state and said “I take cards” and he slid my Amex through a tiny white box attached to his smartphone with great ease. I signed with my finger and a receipt appeared automatically in my inbox. “Oh my gosh, what’s that called?” I asked incredulously. It was Square. In the next 24 hours, I mentioned it to no fewer than 5 people. It was so incredibly different than what I expected- so delightfully easy to pay on the go- that I had to spread the word.
In my next post, lesson #2: you can’t afford to blend.