Branson’s flight of fancy

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson is finding it hard to get people to take his latest venture seriously, according to the man given the job of marketing it. Trevor Beattie, a founder of advertising agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay, has said people think Virgin Galactic, which promises to run commercial flights to the edge of space by 2008, is “just one big stunt” (MW last week).

Beattie has paid $200,000 (&£113,000) to be on one of the first flights and is also offering his skills pro bono to market the venture. But giving credibility to the operation will be no easy task and Virgin will need to overcome doubts about its viability. Reports that Branson is in talks to launch orbiting “space hotels” make the venture look even more like a flight of fancy.

Even so, Virgin insists that Galactic – which offers two-hour, sub-orbital flights, including 15 minutes in space and five minutes of weightlessness – is well within technological capabilities. The craft, SpaceShipTwo, to be unveiled next month, will be launched from a mothership at 50,000 ft and fly to the edge of the atmosphere. Its seven passengers will be able to see the darkness of space, the naked sun and the curvature of Earth.

There will be competition for passengers from rivals. Space Ventures, a US company using Russian technology, says it will carry its first space tourists next year.

Assuming Galactic launches trouble-free and on time – a feat in itself given the troubled history of space travel – some think it could boost the Virgin brand. “Its portfolio has been looking tired and lost. If this works, it can add new energy,” says brand consultant Nikki Jones of Wolff Olins. But she warns: “People are happy to see Branson take risks in balloons, but space travel is dangerous and the question is whether people trust Virgin enough to put them in a dangerous situation.”

Virgin claims 50,000 people have already paid deposits for the flights and predicts that prices will drop by half in the next ten years.

Meanwhile, Marcus Mitchell, strategist at Corporate Edge, thinks Galactic could fulfil a vital branding role by acting as a symbolic successor to Branson: “It could be a powerful symbol of the Virgin brand long after Branson has gone, bringing it to life without having a single person represent it.”

Galactic appears a radical departure from Virgin’s main brand values. Virgin is strongest when challenging established players in markets operating against consumer interest. Virgin Atlantic, Mobile, and Megastores have thrived on their David and Goliath associations, as has Virgin Money, though to a lesser extent.

Galactic, by contrast, is promoting values of innovation, luxury and adventure. That said, Branson is attempting to revive some of the old radicalism. He says: “The development will allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”

Branson has a propensity for publicity stunts, which observers believe can undermine the Virgin brand. For the launch of Virgin Bride, Branson shaved off his beard and dressed as a bride. Virgin Galactic is likely to be seen either as a far-sighted innovation that ushers in a new age of space tourism, or just a cheap publicity stunt.

David Benady

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