At NRF’s Big Show in New York last week, Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson joined Kip Tindell, cofounder of the Container Store, on stage for a conversation.
After entering the conference hall to great fanfare, Branson, who oversees more than 400 companies in 50 countries, and employs more than 60,000 people, dove in to share some insights from 50 years of professional experience.
“It’s a tough business,” Branson said, when asked what he made of the retail industry in its current state. To break the ice, he recalled an April fools prank he tried to play, years ago, when he announced a music box which would contain all the world’s recorded albums and singles, and promised to change the industry for good. This was only a few years before Steve Jobs would unveil Apple’s iPod, putting countless record stores (including Virgin’s Megastores) out of business in the process. “Beware of jokes,” Branson warned. “They can backfire on you.”
But despite the misfortune of its Megastore chain, Virgin has flourished in a number of industries besides music (travel and hospitality, to name just a few). When asked how such a large entity keeps a loyal customer base, Branson said it was important to make sure that each venture enhanced the brand–which he described as a “way of life” brand. “By and large, I think we’ve got that right,” he said. “We haven’t succeeded in all our ventures, but I think people have enjoyed the way we’ve done it, and the passion we put into everything we do. Over the years, I think the brand has gotten stronger.” Virgin’s clients don’t mind seeing the brand trying and failing, so long as they’re not left in debt, and their reputation is intact, Branson said. And, “fortunately, we’ve had more successes than failures.”
A major failure for Virgin was its foray into the bridal business, Branson joked, suggesting that perhaps this was because there is a lack of demand for Virgin Brides.
But, joking aside, Branson attributed much of Virgin’s success to open-mindedness, and a willingness to expand into new territories, including mobile phones and video games. He stressed that “people who own retail stores should not think of themselves as forever being retailers.” Instead, “they need to be entrepreneurial and spin off business on the back of retail, maybe to make money to help the retail stores to survive.”