Richard Branson occasionally answers readers' questions in his column. This week he shares his story of how the name Virgin sprang to life.
Do you have a question for Branson? If so, send yours to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com and it might be the inspiration for a future column. Please include your name and country.
Q: Why are Virgin Blue airplanes painted red?
— Dick Percs, Western Australia
A: The name and the distinctive red planes are based on a suggestion from Brett Godfrey, Virgin Blue's founder and CEO. But there is more to the Virgin Blue name than the color, so let's start this story at the beginning.
On an afternoon in 1970, a couple of friends and I were brainstorming some possibilities for a name for the new record business we were starting up. We were all enthusiastic about the name "Slipped Disc" until someone said, "Do you think 'Virgin' might work?"
We loved it for many reasons, not least of which was that even after the swinging '60s, the word was still risqué. Our competitors' names were "His Master's Voice" (HMV, after its logo of the dog listening to the gramophone), "Parlophone" and "Decca."
Virgin had a fresh, sexy feel to it. It declared that we were new to the music industry, and the business world in general. We excitedly scribbled it down with a big capital V—that scribble became the basis for the Virgin logo. The logo was pasted into the center of some Mike Oldfield records, and the Virgin brand took off soon afterward.
The name turned out to be successful on many levels: It was unique, so it was instantly recognizable; it was not specific to one industry or region; and it was compatible with the brand that we would eventually build. We were lucky. These days, some entrepreneurs pay branding specialists a lot of money to create, test and refine a brand name and logo—but that's no guarantee of a successful outcome.
Any entrepreneur choosing a company name should think carefully about whether a proposed name is sufficiently versatile to be extended to future products and services. Virgin Records worked well in the entertainment industry, but we were not all sure of ourselves in 1984, when we painted our company's logo on the giant tailfin of Virgin Atlantic Airways' one and only Boeing 747. It stood out—by that time we had chosen our distinctive shade of red.
Not everyone loved it. David Tait, one of people who helped set up the airline, gave me a tough time, declaring, "Nobody's going to fly on an airline that won't go all the way." But I dug in my heels and insisted it was better than "British Atlantic Airways," the original name of our start-up company, pointing out that the world really didn't need another "BA." (British Airways had enough publicity already.)
That fledgling airline became the foundation on which we built Virgin's brand values and consolidated its international presence. Virgin Atlantic was soon a market leader because of its innovative approach, and because we provided great customer service and terrific value. Our distinctive marketing, which was known for being edgy, irreverent, self-deprecating and fun, spread the word, enabling us to launch other Virgin-branded companies all over the world.
Our unique name and unique brand, along with a consistent execution across that brand, made the company a success. As we introduced the varied businesses that followed, we ensured that Virgin always represented added value, improved service and a fresh approach, from Virgin Money to Virgin Galactic. We knew, as did our customers and competitors, exactly what we stood for.
This brings me to the naming of our Australian airline, Virgin Blue. In the 1850s, a large influx of immigrants arrived in Australia, hoping to make their fortunes in the gold fields. The Irish, many of whom were redheads, soon gained a reputation as hard drinkers and fighters. A fight, in local slang, was a "blue." When a redheaded Irishman passed by, people would say, "There goes a blue," and to this day, Australians often give their redheaded friends the nickname "Bluey."
When we were preparing to launch our Australian airline in 2000, Brett suggested that Aussies would connect our upstart nature and red logo with the name Virgin Blue. To highlight the play on words, we painted the planes a bold red. Our airline quickly caught on with Aussies.
Following its strong domestic start, Virgin Blue became an international airline, and now flies to Europe, the Middle East, many Pacific Island nations, North America and Asia—countries where the blue vs. red wordplay is not understood. So earlier this month, we renamed Virgin Blue and our other airlines in the region, uniting them all under the banner Virgin Australia.
If you find yourself in a difficult spot because of your company's name—perhaps because business has expanded more than you ever anticipated—don't panic. Try looking at other solutions. Consider incorporating your old name into your new one. This could be the perfect opportunity to reintroduce your company to the media—tell them about your plans and your renamed business's core values.
In our case, "Slipped Disc" would have been a fun name for our record label, but I am not so sure it would have worked for airlines or fitness clubs!
Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com. Please include your name and country in your question.
Image credit: Nemo's great uncle