Sir Richard Branson has been called “the undisputed king” of the publicity stunt, and we couldn’t agree more. Rarely missing an opportunity to spread the word according to Virgin, Branson has traveled far and wide, and gone to extreme lengths to advertise the various companies that fall under his umbrella brand. Virgin has always prioritized and prided itself on its PR, and generally it’s worked for them — and to spectacular effect.
Undoubtedly a skilful and savvy operator, Richard Branson has used his fame and familiar face to put his companies squarely in the spotlight time and time again. Always retaining a self-deprecating sense of humor and a smiling affably, Branson is the good-natured boss many managers and CEOs aspire to be. From breaking world records through to fancy dress escapades and even appearing in an episode of Baywatch, Sir Richard always goes the extra yard. Here are the ten greatest Virgin PR stunts he’s ever undertaken.
10. Dresses in Wedding Dress for Virgin Brides Venture
For the 1996 launch of the relatively short-lived bridal and wedding venture Virgin Brides — it ceased trading in 2007 — Sir Richard won a fair bit of publicity by shaving off his famous beard and donning a $10,000 wedding dress. Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, Branson ensured the media stunt garnered fat column inches for the Virgin brand, and though the company may have faded, the image of Branson dressed in drag on a catwalk has not — a PR coup selling the idea that this is one businessman who’s not afraid to laugh at himself.
9. Jumps Off Palms Hotel Casino to Celebrate Virgin American Flight
In 2007 Sir Richard celebrated the inaugural Virgin American flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas with an outlandish – and potentially dangerous – act. Branson’s nerves of steel were given a severe test when he jumped off the Palms Hotel Casino in Las Vegas in a bungee-meets-abseiling stunt. Supported by a harness and cable, the PR king descended 407 feet literally by the seat of his pants. The leap of faith did not go completely smoothly — he bashed into the building twice and ripped some material from his pants — but while some saw his public image plunging because of this, the stunt was a sign of his courage and human qualities to others.
8. Poses as Zulu Warrior to Celebrate Flights to South Africa
While visiting a cultural center near Johannesburg, Branson, in typically extrovert fashion, decided to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s first flights to South Africa by dressing up as a Zulu warrior. The airline, launched in 1984 out of a merger with the former British Atlantic Airways, is the jewel in Virgin’s crown. Sir Richard’s unusual get-up provided countless photo opportunities and helped boost the brand’s profile. In 2010 the company flew over five million passengers all over the world – a far cry from the airline’s humble beginnings.
7. Slings Dita Von Teese Across Back at Virgin Media Launch
In 2007, Branson launched the British communications company and internet broadband provider, Virgin Media, in London’s Covent Garden. With a little help from the sexy burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, Sir Richard ensured the event got the photographers snapping – flinging the model over his back and keeping his face squarely in the public eye by acting out the naughty prank. Today Virgin Media is a major player in the UK telecommunications market, with 4.8 million customers using its fiber optic cable network.
6. Drives Tank Down Fifth Avenue to Launch Virgin Cola
In 1998, in order to launch Virgin Cola to the US market, Branson drove a tank down Fifth Avenue and then “blew up” the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square. The memorably spectacular stunt created plenty of buzz for the fizzy soda drink, as Sir Richard promised war with Pepsi and Coke. However, despite all the attention created by the one-man PR machine, sales of the cola slipped rapidly, and it’s now rare to find the drink outside a Virgin Atlantic flight. Still, while the marketing battle may have been lost, the Branson and Virgin PR war machine never ceased revving its engine.
5. Bares Butt to Mark Arrival of Virgin Atlantic in Canada
Sir Richard has never been afraid to be the butt of a joke, as this image clearly shows. To mark Virgin Atlantic’s landing in Canada, the self-styled eccentric billionaire had the bare cheek to strip off down to his shorts – and then some! With the company’s name proudly emblazoned on he and his colleagues’ posteriors, the announcement was guaranteed to hit the headlines. Another oddball stunt, but doubtless a carefully calculated one, and further proof that Branson’s no ass when it comes to shameless self-publicity.
4. Dresses as Birdman
In 2003, the high-flying entrepreneur traded his Virgin Atlantic window seat for a dashing pair of wings. Branson was taking part in the Bognor Birdman event, a typically eccentric get-together in a small English coastal town. Competitors are required to jump off a pier and then attempt to “fly” over the English Channel to France. Branson’s head for heights must have helped, but he didn’t quite make it to France this way! He enjoyed the experience though, and remains a patron of the annual competition, while the photos of course helped the Virgin boss’s image to soar.
3. Drives from Dover to Calais Across English Channel
In 2004, the flamboyant, daredevil Virgin chief set a world record for crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais, France in an amphibious car. Driving a James Bond style Aquada sports car that cut through the waves, the trip took Branson just 1 hour and 40 minutes. The entrepreneur once again showed that he is more willing than most to go to extremes. What’s more, it paid off and then some as Branson generated yet more media coverage for himself and his global empire.
2. Arrives in Spacesuit for Press Conference Launching Virgin Galactic
When Branson first unveiled his plans for a sub-orbital space travel service to be available to the paying public in 2004, the savvy marketeer attended press conferences dressed in an astronaut’s suit. To publicize the space suits, he also made himself the image of Buzz Aldrin for a photo shoot (see top image) — a hero at the dawn of a new era, gazing into a new celestial frontier. Capturing the public’s imagination and grabbing the headlines is clearly a strong point of Sir Richard’s. Arguably the entrepreneur’s most ambitious project, Virgin Galactic has yet to make any flights beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but the company has stated that all is “on track with its development plans.”
1. Round the World by Hot Air Balloon
Sir Richard Branson’s PR skills are perhaps best known in relation to his tests of ingenuity and bravery in the seat of a hot air balloon. In 1987, his relentless pursuit of excellence in aviation, and his knowledge of publicity, saw him become eternally associated with extreme record braking attempts. The “Virgin Atlantic Flyer” was the largest ever hot air balloon flown, at 2.3 million cubic feet capacity, and the fastest to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Branson’s love affair with ballooning continued, and between 1995 and 1998 he made several attempts to circumnavigate the globe. He made a record-breaking flight from Morocco to Hawaii in 1998, but was beaten to the global record. Nevertheless, for many, the balloon attempts stand for the lengths — and heights — Branson will go to to realize his powerful and seemingly limitless ambition.