On the ridiculous ...


As things currently stand, wealthy business men are far more likely to face a mob brandishing flaming torches than the accolade 'national treasure'. Even Alan Sugar is, at best, a rather grouchy figure of fun. But if there's one glaring exception, it's Richard Branson. With his silly mullet and toothy goatee, he's the capitalist it's still okay to like.

So how did Ricky B set himself apart from the evil, bonus-guzzling fat cats? What makes him so different?

Perhaps it's his hippy roots, or his bottle blond roots. Or maybe it's his 'jeans in the boardroom', call-me-Richard, relaxed approach. Yep, our Richard sure is the 'People's Tycoon'. Which is quite surprising because his enterprises tend to be ... well ... a bit rubbish.

Don't believe me? Well here, m'lud, is the evidence:

Virgin Cola
Launched in 1994, RB assured us this sugar water was set to replace Coca-Cola as the world's favourite soft drink. Despite its 'lady-curves' bottle and ubiquity on Virgin Trains (more of which later), the beverage has pretty much vanished. Naturally it tasted like Panda Pops laced with Fairy Liquid.

Virgin Clothes
Who wore Virgin Clothes? Seriously, who? In fact, who remembers Virgin Clothes? Well, the investors who backed the label as it floated on the stock exchange in 1996 probably do. It lost them a pile of cash. The brand has now ... ahem ... folded.

Virgin Money
Obviously only a lunatic on strong narcotics would lovingly at a bank right now, but in 1999, Branson figured this was the door to the big(ger) time. So much so that he starred in the new project's advertising emerging naked from the ocean. The company's profits were even less appealing than the image you now have in your head.

Virgin Vie
Avon built a massive business in a very clever way. They persuaded their customers to be their sales agents in return for a pretty modest commission. Of course our bearded chum couldn't fail with his version of the 'party plan' business model. Could he? Yes, of course he could. Still trading but has long since parted company with the Virgin brand.

Virgin Brides
I can only imagine the weak pun was sufficient to spur Dick into action and  inspire him to roll out a chain of bridal gown emporia. A marriage of concept and business acumen made in heaven! Not really, the whole escapade lasted barely longer than a Hollywood relationship, closing in 2007.

Virgin Vodka, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Wine, Virgin Cosmetics
We could be here for quite some time if we were to list every venture on which the Rickster has embarked and subsequently abandoned. Suffice to say each and every business above crashed and burned like a hot air balloon with a collapsed canopy. Speaking of which ...

Balloons, boats and bad ideas
Whereas most billionaires are content to float about in their mahogany hot tubs, sipping from bikini clad beauties and kissing bottles of Krug, our Richard is more of an adventurous soul. In fact, for a man who owns an airline, he's awfully keen on crossing the Atlantic in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Watch as Branson and his mate (Per Thingy) lift off in a Virgin branded super blimp and head for the UK coast. Except, as we might expect, it all goes horribly wrong and the entire, fume filled contraption plunges into the Irish Sea. Publicly funded rescue services must then retrieve the hapless aviators. Now see how Mr. B beats the record for a speed boat crossing of The Pond by a wide margin. Or more accurately, sigh as the whole craft becomes stranded part way across and our hero must once more be plucked from the drink.

Virgin Trains
All the above could easily be dismissed as frippery - the commercial playthings of a very wealthy fellow. But the whole train thing was something else. Branson had long been in favour of a privatised rail network and lobbied parliament to that effect. When the dream became reality he wasted no time in promising his franchise stood ready to deliver cheap, comfortable and reliable rail travel without the need for government subsidy. Well, if only. The Virgin Train service protects its monopoly fiercely, is hugely reliant on public cash and attracts untold passenger complaints every year.

In all seriousness, this is the one catastrophe that has really tainted the Branson brand. Anyone stranded on some obscure platform on a freezing evening, awaiting the arrival of a string of Virgin carriages which invariably smell of wee, will struggle to think of RB and his company with anything less than murderous intent.

In the interests of balance I would say I once flew Virgin Airlines to Nassau and it was tremendous. And Virgin Records released Never Mind The B*llocks, one of the most important rock albums ever.

But is that really enough to anoint this faintly silly, but very affluent man? Let alone tolerate his hair style.

Magnus Shaw - blogger, writer & broadcaster




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