Fiona Ross is part of the Virgin Group Global Brand Team who are responsible for defining the brand purpose, developing innovative new Virgin businesses and expanding the Virgin brand into new markets. She joined the team in 2006 as Head of Brand for South Africa, and also serves on the Virgin Unite Africa Board and is part of the advisory team for the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. We chat to her about representing a brand that falls into many industries, dealing with criticism, and we learn of the wise words spoken to her by Sir Richard Branson.
Hi Fiona. What are some of the challenges faced when one brand represents a variety of fields?
Richard Branson has always had a great instinct for where Virgin can provide something different and better. This, combined with smart partnerships and people, has built a strong portfolio of diverse Virgin companies. Whether it is planes, trains, mobile, money, hotels or health clubs each of these companies are bound together by the Virgin brand and what it stands for, which is to “change things for good”. Be smartly disruptive and deliver experiences that are surprisingly delightful. As a result, the brand is loved by people and they have very high expectations of what a Virgin company delivers. The challenge comes when a Virgin company falls short of their expectation as this can erode their love of the brand and impact other companies in the Virgin Group.
What are the best ways to handle negative criticism about a brand – such as the case with Dimitri Philippou?
Listen. Understand what the criticism is about and solve the issue. Constructive feedback from customers is a great way to improve your business. In the case of Dimitri Philippou, he registered a trademark for the line ‘You can’t be a virgin all your life, it’s time…’. Virgin understandably opposed the trademark but the UK Intellectual Property court allowed it, as Virgin was one word in a sentence of 10. I haven’t seen the line used outside of the legal context and a few media headlines.
The ‘Open for Business SA’ conference recently took place. What were some of the business philosophies that Sir Richard Branson disclosed that are applied to the Virgin brand?
“Open for Business” is an entrepreneurship festival and is an initiative of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. The Branson Centre is based in Braamfontein and is part funded by Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group. It provides practical business workshops – that are inspired by Richard and Virgin’s experience -, mentorship and access to networks to entrepreneurs who have launched a business but need support to grow it.
“Open for Business” was created to provide small business owners with a platform to market their goods and services to their neighbours and to meet entrepreneurs like them from the Branson Centre. Two events have taken place in Alexandra and Katlehong and a third is planned in Soweto on 03 November at Virgin Active Maponya Mall. Winners from each event will get the chance to attend the Branson Centre and there they will start to get a flavour of Richard’s business philosophies.
What are some good marketing principles when trying to expand your brand?
Have a strong, well-articulated brand purpose, a reason for being, that staff believe in and that the business can practically deliver. This will give direction on where the brand can expand. Invest time in understanding and anticipating consumer needs. The opportunity sweet spot is where needs are unmet – or not yet imagined – and where the brand resonates. Having the right leader and team to lead the expansion is critical, strong people are the foundation a business needs to succeed.
Which platforms and methods do you think brands should use to communicate to the South African market?
Technology has given brands so many platforms and channels to connect with their audience now. People use a myriad of sources to make decisions from social networks, experts, Google search, websites, blogs, forums, news to traditional advertising, and the decision process is not sequential. A strong communications plan will combine all of these different channels and platforms and in SA it is important to integrate mobile into the mix as more people access the Internet via mobile than PC. The plan will be directed by a good knowledge of who you are targeting, where to find them, what turns them on and what they expect from each platform. And it will deliver results against a clear set of measurable objectives.
How has social media changed the way brands represent themselves?
In the old days you’d invest time and energy in understanding your audience, developing a strong product benefit that was crafted into a simple message that you brought to life with a beautifully produced ad. You then flighted the ad on TV, radio or print as much as your budget allowed, which was not a lot, and hoped that when people saw it they’d take action and buy your product.
Social media has changed that model. It allows you to connect with consumers all the time. Production costs are significantly less but you need to invest time and effort in the medium to ensure you are part of the conversation, or starting it. Teams are being restructured and social media sits comfortably within a team made up of people with marketing, creative, pr and customer service expertise. You need a clear brand voice and an ability to respond quickly and the social media teams need to know the business inside out. Creation and curation of shareable content that extends the brand’s network is where a lot of marketing teams are now investing their effort. Virgin Mobile USA is a good example of this ‘publishing’ approach to marketing, and it works well for their youthful ‘frugalista’ audience who live on their mobiles and love being first to know. They pride themselves on finding the best deal and getting good value, so their daily enlightenment fix also leads them to Virgin Mobile’s latest deals and tips on how to make their mobile budget go further.
Social media is a really effective channel to service customers. Virgin America is digitally wired and resolves customer complaints that are tweeted from the plane before the customer lands, immediately turning their problem into a positive experience. It’s also interesting how social media allows fans to handle negative criticism on a brand’s behalf. Sometimes when a complaint is unfounded it is better to sit back and wait before jumping in. Richard has always loved talking directly to customers and social media allows him to reach so many more people on a daily basis. He really enjoys Twitter and invests regular time in his blog, with over 4 million people having read his posts this year.
Lastly, when you met Sir Richard Branson, what one question did you ask him?
I had the opportunity of asking him what he wanted to be remembered for and here is his reply, “I will hopefully be remembered as someone who tried to improve people’s lives. Through first creating interesting businesses that changed markets and services for the better – and then through applying business skills to tackle some of the bigger issues in the world such as climate change, species conservation, health and poverty. I would like people to remember me for my insatiable curiosity, desire to challenge accepted wisdom and drive to get things done.” Pretty inspirational and I am happy to be part of his team.
Thank you for sharing that inspirational quote with us, Fiona. We look forward to more great things from The Branson Centre. Find out more about them here.
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