Flying high as the Branson express pulls into town for UPC rebranding

Founder of Virgin Media in Dublin to relaunch UPC as Virgin Media

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson  at the RDS for the rebranding of UPC Ireland. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson at the RDS for the rebranding of UPC Ireland. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

When the Virgin juggernaut rolls into town you pay attention. And you couldn’t fail to miss Richard Branson when he made his entrance into the RDS: he arrived into the Shelbourne Hall on a Virgin-branded truck, horns blaring.

The businessman was in Dublin to help relaunch UPC Ireland as Virgin Media, shedding the former brand and giving the Liberty Global-owned company a new look and focus.

Branson went head to head in a Virgin-themed quiz with the head of Virgin Media’s Irish operation, Magnus Tsernsjo; scooped up event MC Sinéad Redmond for the cameras; and swept out to conduct a press conference with the Irish boss.

“At Virgin we love a challenge,” he said, standing side by side with Tsernsjo. “We’re here to change business for good.”

Branson won’t have a major role in the day-to-day running of Virgin Media. Although he retains a stake in Virgin Media, it’s small, with Liberty Global buying the majority of the company in 2013. But it has the Virgin name, and regardless of his day-to-day involvement, Branson and the Virgin brand are inextricably linked.

Reputation

The Virgin Group comprises around 400 companies, including Virgin Galactic, Branson’s commercial space project, and Virgin Rail. It’s a long way from the days when Branson was known for his music stores, which disappeared from prominent locations in New York and Paris as the digital music revolution took hold.

“It’s strange. When we went from Virgin Megastores to airplanes, people said how on earth can somebody stretch the brand in that way and he’s going to fall flat on his face, the balloon will burst and all those kind of things. In fact, if we hadn’t evolved with time, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he said.

“The great thing about Virgin Media is it’s got music, it’s got films, it’s got some of the things we did on the high street before now straight into people’s homes and I think actually, in some ways, better.”

Newcomer

“I think Virgin, despite its size, has been the David-versus-Goliath type of brand all our life because we’re always taking on bigger companies in every sector we go into,” Branson says.

“We like to think we fight fair and we never let the public down.”

One of those battles was a much publicised row with British Airways that ended with legal action against the airline amid accusations that BA was waging a dirty tricks campaign. Among the accusations were that BA was poaching its passengers, hacking computers and was involved in the leaking of anti-Virgin stories to the press. It ended with a settlement of about £600,000 to Branson and Virgin.

That rivalry is ongoing, although perhaps less pronounced since the demise of Virgin’s domestic airline, Little Red.

The deal between IAG and Aer Lingus may be another battle between the two adversaries. Branson described the decision to sell the former flag carrier to IAG as “sad”.

“It’s not actually good news from the travelling public’s point of view,” he said. “We’re in discussions with the European Union to see if we can reach agreement to make it less damaging than it would be if the EU doesn’t take some fairly draconian measures.”

Branson is key to Virgin’s image as a dynamic brand. He has done everything from ballooning and climbing mountains to crossing the Atlantic – what he describes as “foolish things”, but which have had the effect of giving the Virgin brand an edge over its rivals.

With five decades of business experience behind him, he has a lot to share. Part of his trip to Ireland involves a session with entrepreneurs and startups, sharing some of what he’s learned over the years. The best bit of business advice he can give?

“Surround yourself with wonderful people and give them lots of praise,” he said, comparing people to flowers who flourish when water, or in this case, praise, is plentiful.

Touch of magic

Branson has also been active on a number of other causes, from climate change and conservation of wildlife and oceans to solving social issues such as making drug problems a health issue instead of a criminal one.

He has both the financial resources and the contacts to access when it comes to taking up these causes, and it’s something that he hopes others will turn to over time.

“If every business person and entrepreneur could spend a bit of their time adopting a problem and overcome it, most of the problems of the world would be solved,” he says. “I think the advantage we as business leaders have over politicians is that as long as we keep our businesses going, we’re around for - in my case - 50 years. We’ve got that consistency of tenure.”

One frontier has yet to be breached: space. Originally, Branson had mooted the first commercial space flight could take place in 2009, but that goal has been delayed. Virgin Galactic remains hard at work, with plans to unveil its new spaceship in February. Following that, he says, there will be extensive testing. The company hit the headlines last year with the tragic loss of one of its SpaceShipTwo crafts, the VSS Enterprise, during a test flight.

One element that could have a positive effect for Ireland is the satellite array the company has planned.

“It’s more satellites than anyone has put up in history,” said Branson, “to try to connect the three billion people who don’t have internet or wifi access. For remote parts of Ireland that could be very useful as well.”