This week's announcement, which heralded a Virgin America-based reality show called "Fly Girls"- featuring five of its female flight attendants who bicker, party, pout, flirt and worry about their love lives while living together in a sumptuous 'crash pad'" - is a stark reminder of the decline of Lord Branson's brand.
There was a time when the avatar of a visionary entrepreneur was Richard Branson. There was no doubt. His Virgin Megastores were the hottest retail concept around, a pulsing, throbbing retail environment that became hip hangouts, that changed the way music was sold, and influenced retailing in other categories.
Virgin Air was another innovative, category-rupturing leap. As airlines were cutting back and draining the glamour out of air travel, Virgin was a jolt of cheeky luxury - a clever mash-up of retro chic and post-modern irony.
Virgin America was an attempt to bring that spirit to domestic air travel, but the company has been losing money since 2007. In total there are 360 Virgin businesses, many of them licenses and joint ventures. (Which carries with it a loss of control.) There's no focus or discipline to this sloppy and sprawling agglomeration, beyond the Bransonian notion of attempting to do the impossible:
"My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them...from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it."
Those challenges include fixing the British railway system with Virgin Trains, creating a $200,000 per-lift-off space-travel business with Virgin Galactic, and most recently, attempting to deliver quality and affordable health care with the "acquisition of a 75.1% share-holding in Assura Medical, a UK-based provider of primary healthcare services."
Other ventures included Virgin Cars (shut down), Virgin Mobile (sold to Sprint) and Virgin Cola - have you had one lately?
Compare the Branson strategy of wild diversification to the Steve Jobs strategy of relentless and transformative - but narrow - innovation. There was a time when the Branson strategy was deemed brilliant: establish a brand that stood for a spirited attack on convention, an appealing world-view, and it could go anywhere. But it turned out that a brand could only take you so far and no further. You can't grab a philosophy and slap it on anything that happens to interest Sir Richard at the moment.
Over time, the id-driven Branson approach has shown itself to be inferior to the super-ego driven Jobs model. Branson runs a loosey-goosey, de-centralized, win-some/lose some, inmates-are-running-the-asylum-style organization. He showed up at the launch of Virgin Brides in a wedding dress. But the challenges he embraces are challenges precisely because they are big, complex problems that require extraordinary operational and executional discipline. The id isn't great at that.
Jobs is the anti-Branson. He's what's called in the trade a brand Nazi; his attention to detail is legendary. So while Apple could have pushed its brand into a zillion other categories - directly or as a licensor - nothing could be further from Jobs' ideology.
The comparison is telling. Over time, Branson's brand has lost its magic, while Apple has been apotheosized. In an era where consumers are more demanding and skeptical than ever before, even a beloved showman's name can't sell everything. Or perhaps, anything.