Virgin founder champions green cause at DMA06

SAN FRANCISCO – The future is about the next generation and rethinking old approaches to business, Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, told direct marketers in his Oct. 16 keynote that opened the show.

The Briton recounted how he turned a small record label in his basement into a global entertainment empire including a music company, an airline, a train service, a mobile service provider and an Internet host despite critics along the way.

“One generation can hate something and then the next one comes along and find it impossible to believe that anyone would do it the old way,” Sir Richard said.

“James Lovelaw was ridiculed when he predicted that the Earth is an organism affected by the ecosystem 30 years ago and now global warming is a widely accepted fact,” he said. “I think of Virgin’s history as similar.”

Virgin was founded as a record company in 1972 and went on to sign iconic acts like the Sex Pistols, Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones. Sir Richard decided to get into the airline business in 1984 because he traveled all the time and thought that the market really lacked an airline with the kind of entertainment and service that he desired.

During a canceled flight from the British Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico, Mr. Branson was able to charter a plane and get the waiting passengers there by selling out seats, thus marking the beginnings of a massive travel empire. The airline, which flies between the United States and Britain, is Virgin Atlantic.

What’s new for the brand? Green is the new black.

Virgin Atlantic has just launched its new U.S. headquarters in San Francisco last week, and will launch new planes into the U.S. market. This initiative will be followed by Sir Richard lobbying to encourage airplanes on runways to turn engines off and reduce the fuel being used.

Beyond air travel, the Virgin brand recently unveiled its latest development: space tourism with bookings underway for flights scheduled for 2009.

Other ventures include $3 billion investments in renewable energy and a carbon composite plane that used less energy than an SUV, which is now hanging in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

“If actions are taken by corporations, then humanity will increase its chance of survival,” Sir Richard said. “With wealth comes great responsibility and we can help change things for our environment and make money in the process.”

Sir Richard fought hard for Virgin’s birth.

He told direct marketers at the show that one of the name options considered for his company in its early years was Slip Disc. At the time, he was thinking of selling records through direct mail – a far cry from an empire today comprising an airline, mobile service, retail and trains.

He wasn’t allowed to register the Virgin name with the British patent office for three years. Luckily, the music artistes that his label represented weren’t too bothered whether the name was Virgin or Slip Disc.

“Imagine Slip Disc Airlines,” Sir Richard said.

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