What Richard Branson has to say about experience delivery, leadership and disruption

The Virgin group founder and entrepreneur shares how experience has driven the way he disrupts markets, and what it takes to be a repsonsible business leader

Richard Branson on the Adobe Summit stage
Richard Branson on the Adobe Summit stage

If a customer experience is full of frustration, then it’s probably time to disrupt it, Richard Branson says. And to achieve that, you’d better be paying attention to detail.

The Virgin group founder took to the stage at this year’s Adobe Summit in Las Vegas to share lessons he’s learned over the past 50 years as an entrepreneur, as well as leader.

Branson said making experiences better has been at the heart of every business innovation he’s come up with, and he cited three ways Virgin achieves this: By focusing on experiences to enjoy, relate to, or aspire to.

“With that in mind, we became good at disrupting established businesses, particularly the entrenched ones,” he told attendees. “If a customer experience is full of frustration, creating a new and better experience is the way to go.”

As an example, Branson pointed to the airline industry and launch of Virgin Atlantic in the early 1980s. At that time, transatlantic travel was dull, with little industry competition or incentives for the big flight carriers to “improve let alone innovate,” he said.

When it launched, Virgin Atlantic had just one jumbo jet to compete with 400 British Airway planes, 300 TWA planes and 250 planes at PamAm.

“You could say no one gave our curious airline much of a fighting change… yet we survived and we thrived,” Branson said. “How did we do it? For starters, we changed the experience of flying and turned eight hours of transatlantic boredom into excitement and fun.”

Virgin Atlantic also reimagined check-in, was the first to introduced seat-back videos and focus on entertainment, and also shook up food and comfort while in-flight.

“These are the experiences that make the flight either forgettable or memorable,” Branson said. “We had a fantastic team of people at Virgin, and we became quite good at it, so good the other airlines tried to follow in our flight path.

“When making experiences, attention to detail matters,” Branson continued, pointing out he carries a notebook in his pocket whenever he’s on a flight to record observations, thoughts and experiences from passengers and cabin staff. He then works to action them the next day.

“Frequently taking note of seemingly little things has become one of the keys to our success. As expectations change, experiences must evolve too,” he said.

As a leader, it’s vital to always be a good listener, Branson said.

“Strive to create a different and better experience to everyone else. Never rest on your laurels,” he added. “We try to live by these principles in every business we run, from airlines to trains, hotels and gyms.”

For Branson, businesses not only have a responsibility for providing better experiences to customers, they should be taking care of community and the planet, too. This is something he’s actively seeking to do through initiatives such as Virgin Unite, a charitable institution that looks to harness entrepreneurial capability globally in order to transform things that “are not acceptable” in the world.

“Too many businesses have a history of doing the opposite - destroying ecosystems, depleting natural resources and harming communities,” Branson said. “So much is driven by an obsession for short-term gains that seems indifferent to long-term consequences, from catastrophic climate change to armed conflict and rampant corruption and oppression. It often seems we are least willing to learn from the experiences that should matter most in our lives.

“That’s not the world we want to pass on to next generations.”

To overcome this, we all need to listen to the experiences around us. “That includes political prisoners deprived on human rights, people’s pain and suffering and who need cannabis treatment… or the millions of refugees worldwide fleeing persecution, violence and conflict,” Branson said.

Ultimately for Branson, leaders must remember, teach, inspire and stimulate.

Of course it wouldn’t be Virgin without a touch of tongue-in-cheek marketing, and to close his presentation, Branson presented several examples of successful guerrilla marketing undertaken by Virgin over the years, from US Superbowl stunts involved its Virgin airships, to poking fun at British Airways.

Nor would it be a Virgin presentation without a reference to space, and Branson said space travel was the next experience to conquer. He hinted at more news coming on this front in coming months.

"There is a little lonely car going around space at the moment and we feel it needs some company, so watch this space," he said.

Through all of his work, Branson stressed the importance of looking after your employees, noting Virgin’s unlimited leave policy as an example, and said he looks for attributes such as kindness, seeking the best in other people, and genuinely listening, in his staff.

“If you are in a position of power and someone says there’s a problem at home, immediately tell them to sort it out, get priorities right in life,” Branson concluded. “We have 85,000 people working for Virgin now. Because we run the companies like this, they are very successful.”

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit as a guest of Adobe.

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