In an exclusive interview with executive business channel MeetTheBoss.tv, Virgin Galactic’s President Will Whitehorn explains just why innovation goes so much deeper than just being “the next step” in business.
The word ‘innovation’ both inspires and defines companies. For the enterprising and entrepreneurial Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin brand, the reality of turning space travel into a genuine commercial commodity has now become the latest in a long line of innovative moves, a thing that some have said is just the next natural progression for the brand.
“In the 1980s when I first started working in the world of brand development, business development, and the marketing of companies as opposed to marketing of individual products, the understanding of branding in Britain was pretty poor,” explains Whitehorn.
“So my reckoning came when looking at the Virgin brand that Richard had built. He’d managed to get this reputation for quality, value, money, innovation, and a sense of entrepreneurialism – and his approach when you’re building a brand was that you’ve got to think about what you’re building and how you build its reputation and, of course, by the time I’d really got going at Virgin, the reputation of Virgin Atlantic was already growing rapidly.”
History in the making
Two key points in Virgin’s history largely define Whitehorn’s career alongside Richard Branson. Often described as both a ‘lynchpin’ to the business and ‘Richard Branson’s no.2’ (something he is quick to dispute – “Richard doesn’t have a right-hand man, he’s probably got about five or six right-hand men and women and he’s got about seven or eight left-hand men and women too”), Whitehorn’s presence at Virgin has always been felt.
The first of these issues came during what Virgin claimed as British Airways’ (BA) ‘dirty tricks’ campaign back in 1993, which, according to Virgin, saw BA attempting to monopolise the airline industry with BA employees poaching Virgin customers and tampering with confidential company files. Recalling that time, Whitehorn said that they were simply producing adverse and detrimental reports on Virgin so they could be circulated to city editors.
Whitehorn was instrumental to the fight back against BA at this time. He explained that the sale of the Virgin record company made a strong psychological statement that the airline was here to stay. “And I think that’s when morale inside BA began to collapse, especially when they’d been paying for these reports to be done.”
The second issue was the Pendolino train crash in 2007, which saw Whitehorn and Virgin Train’s then-CEO Tony Collins joining Sir Richard Branson both at the bedsides of the injured passengers and at the crash site of the accident. “There were a number of people saying we just shouldn’t be doing this, but I just didn’t agree. I said, ‘This is our moral duty,’ and Sir Richard agreed entirely. He said, ‘The thing is you’ve got to think what if it were my kids on that train, whether they’d been hurt or not, I’d have expected to see the boss of the company standing up to talk about it. I wouldn’t expect there to be nobody available.’ So when we went in front of the media, Sir Richard said, ‘If I was responsible for this, I will take full responsibility’.”
The final frontier?
Innovation isn’t just at the heart of the Virgin brand, it’s the thing that sparks inspiration, drives product and forges careers. “What we’re doing with Virgin Galactic is using interesting, modern aviation technologies, which we have taken into the space arena. Stephen Murphy, the CEO of Virgin Group, said as we took this project on, ‘I think you’ve got a really good market for this. I believe you will sell the tickets.’ And he’s been proved right about that.
“The thing that worried him and other colleagues was could we get the technology to work? And of course it’s the trust in the Virgin name, which leads people to be prepared to put down the deposits and stick with us. I mean, we’ve had an incredibly loyal team internally who have stuck with this project, who are doing this not just because we want to do it and because we believe it’s really important for the industry.”