by Rod Kurtz
When you board a Virgin America plane, distinct aesthetics—purple ambient lights, black leather seats and a flight crew smartly clad in Banana Republic uniforms—make it immediately clear this airline is different. Like the rest of Sir Richard Branson's properties, Virgin America launched in 2007 as a brash upstart in a traditional industry—an attempt to jostle the stalwart carriers and give air travel a sexy update.
In the years since, this cheeky attitude has extended to the growing carrier's slick advertising, irreverent social media campaigns and partnerships with everyone from independent food and liquor companies to the San Francisco Giants. Air travel remains about as complex and competitive an industry as they come, but despite that, Virgin America continues to establish, with ample flair, a stronghold in some of the nation's biggest markets.
"...you might as well build the sexiest beast ever built—the sexiest spaceship, the sexiest mother ship, the sexiest space port."
Since its founding more than four decades ago, Virgin Group has brought a similar aesthetic and design sensibility to a range of industries. Pushing the envelope was a lesson Branson learned early in his entrepreneurial career, and one he carries with him to this day. We recently caught up with the high-flying billionaire at 35,000 feet, during a recent Virgin America in-flight Instagram event, for a conversation about the importance of design, brand building and the unlikely inspiration for Virgin's iconic logo.
From your airlines to the new Virgin Hotels project, design plays a central role across the Virgin brands. How important do you think this has been to the company's success over the years?
I think it's incredibly important. People walk onto a plane like, say, Virgin America, it feels welcoming and comfortable and immediately they feel good. And that just makes the job of the staff that much easier. And if you're building a spaceship company like Virgin Galactic, you might as well build the sexiest beast ever built—the sexiest spaceship, the sexiest mother ship, the sexiest space port. Getting every little bit of the design right is so important. On Virgin Atlantic, we have pepper pots that are shaped as windmills.
And the famous Sir Richard ice cubes, of course.
Well, that wasn't something I was so sure about. But I think people shouldn't underestimate the importance of design. Great design can be great marketing.
When did you first become aware of the importance of design? Did you have an early design influence? It seems like its been central to the company for a very long time.
"Great design can be great marketing."
In the good old days of the record business, the 12-inch sleeve designs were such an important part of an album. And obviously, we put out a lot of albums over the years. Going back to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," looking at the design of that very first album, with the tubular bell floating through space, it fit with the music so well. It may well have originated from that. And almost every day, we had a new album coming out and thought about how we could get the artwork right. The Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" stood out and put them on the map. I suspect that's where it originated from.
Where did the Virgin logo come from? It's become an iconic design in its own right.
We used to have a fairly hippie-based logo, which was a Roger Dean painting that had a dragon and a young girl. Then we started signing punk bands like the Sex Pistols, so we needed to update it. Somebody came into the office and we were talking about what we wanted and they literally just scribbled on a bit of paper, doodling the Virgin logo. I was heading to the loo and I just looked over their shoulder and saw it there and said, "That's what we want." So it was literally five minutes of—it wasn't really design, it was just something the guy scribbled and it couldn't have worked out better. It works on planes and trains and spaceships and everything.
I know you're going to say Apple, but beyond Apple, what are some other brands out there that get design right?
There's a guy called Jochen Zeitz who runs Puma in Germany [Branson's partner in a new philanthropic initiative called B Team]. They're very good. Under Armour does things very well. They're very much the challenger brand and they do everything very stylishly and I think they've definitely got Nike worried.
On a personal design note, how's the Necker Island rebuilding going?
It couldn't be coming better. I think, one day, we'll ask ourselves whether we burned the house down on purpose.
Images courtesy of Virgin America