Public Relations: Masters of spin - Why would a chief executive don an absurd costume and act the goat? Could monumental brand awareness and increased sales explain it?

By HELEN JONES, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 02 April 1999 12:00AM

Richard Branson is not the first entrepreneur to use dare-devil exploits and high-profile publicity stunts to promote his brand. In 1868, Alfred Bird, inventor of Bird’s custard, set the world record for the fastest tricycle journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. And in 1880, Thomas Barratt, the owner of Pears soap, flooded Britain with coins stamped with the Pears name. It took an act of Parliament to stop him, but by then he had generated all the publicity he needed.

Richard Branson is not the first entrepreneur to use dare-devil

exploits and high-profile publicity stunts to promote his brand. In

1868, Alfred Bird, inventor of Bird’s custard, set the world record for

the fastest tricycle journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. And in

1880, Thomas Barratt, the owner of Pears soap, flooded Britain with

coins stamped with the Pears name. It took an act of Parliament to stop

him, but by then he had generated all the publicity he needed.



Many modern chief executives prefer to stay out of the limelight. But

Branson, like Bird and Barratt before him, is prepared to go to

extraordinary lengths to keep his company in the public eye. Whether

it’s dressing as a Zulu warrior for Virgin Airlines’ inaugural flight to

South Africa, or donning a wedding dress for the launch of Virgin

Brides, he is always willing to clown for the camera.



Chris Lewis, founder of the PR consultancy, Lewis Communications,

comments: ’Companies with a turnover of between pounds 50m and pounds

100m are more likely to be personality-driven than larger companies

because they don’t have the budget to advertise on the same scale.’



Will Whitehorn, Branson’s spin-meister extraordinaire, says: ’Richard

believes it is important that he should be out there promoting the

business. He is very much like an American entrepreneur because he sees

it as his duty.’



While Branson is perhaps the most obvious self-publicist, others such as

Mohammed Al Fayed, Alan Sugar, Anita Roddick, Terence Conran, Howard

Hodgeson and James Dyson also recognise that personal publicity can

transfer to the brand.



Julian Richer, owner of the hi-fi chain, Richer Sounds, which boasts the

highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the world, is a

consummate self-publicist. He is also a famously innovative employer and

lends the company Bentley to the best performing employee each month

His views on staff motivation and customer service are widely quoted,

and not just in the business pages - his 1996 book, The Richer Way, was

a best seller.



A spokeswoman for the company says: ’I think the fact that Julian has a

high profile does help the business because people associate his name

with great customer service.’



Meanwhile, James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum

cleaner, is a frequent figure in the Sunday supplements. His

rags-to-riches story of a designer struggling against the odds makes

great copy, and he also regularly proffers his views on design and

innovation. It is perhaps surprising then, that Dyson’s press office

insists that his involvement in the company is in research and

development rather than PR.



Robert Metcalfe, managing director of the Rowland Company, says that

when individuals become associated with a company it can be

’tremendously positive because human beings are a much more tangible

quantity than anything you could say about a company’.



Whitehorn says that in the case of Virgin, Branson’s high profile

provides an additional benefit. ’Virgin is a branded venture capital

group with interests in lots of different companies. There is definite

crossover if we spend pounds 10m on Virgin Direct and pounds 8m on

Virgin Airlines - the effect rubs off on the other companies,’ he

says.



However, having a company figurehead doesn’t always save money. Louise

Leadbetter of Leadbetter PR comments: ’I think companies with

significant figureheads actually spend more on PR because the more time

you spend doing it, the more PR you generate. Consequently, the more

time you have to spend to maintain it. The time is a major investment

and PR isn’t a cheap exercise.’



Jonathan Hemus, deputy managing director of Reputation Managers,

agrees.



’Using the chairman to create publicity is cheaper than advertising, but

PR doesn’t happen on its own. In the companies that do it well there are

a lot of people working behind the scenes.’



But a high profile can be a double-edged sword. Lewis says: ’Sometimes

the problem with self-made men is that they have too strong a belief in

the creator, and that is not always in the best interests of the

company.’



Another problem is that a mistake made by an individual can reflect

badly on the entire company. ’Gerald Ratner was popular and respected

within the Ratner Group, but he said the wrong thing at the wrong time

and that was it. The group never really recovered,’ Lewis says.



Metcalfe adds that having a ubiquitous company figurehead can also

backfire.



’If consumers see that someone is involved in many aspects of the

business, they may not believe that he or she is closely involved in any

one part of the business.’



Company chiefs who take great personal risks can also be problematic,

Lewis explains: ’It doesn’t matter if Branson goes haring off round the

world in a balloon, because it is a private company and there are no

shareholders to get jittery. But it might be a different matter if the

company was publicly quoted.’



Whitehorn says that Virgin has addressed this issue: ’The business is

now well established and it is an issue we have dealt with. Some of the

best brands in Britain were developed in the 19th century by

entrepreneurs such as Marks & Spencer, Lever Brothers and Thomas Cook,

and some of them died in the process of building the business. It’s not

something we dwell on.’ Perhaps to be on the safe side Branson should

follow Alfred Bird’s lead and stick to the tricycle.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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