What Richard Branson taught me about storytelling

Ben LilleyIn this guest post, McCann Worldgroup boss Ben Lilley shares what he learned about storytelling by hanging out with Virgin founder Richard Branson on Necker Island.

‪We are an industry awash with “storytelling”. Everyone’s a storyteller and every brand has its story to tell. So where are all the great brand stories?

‪Storytelling is not the problem here. For all of us seeking to create meaningful connections with information-saturated consumers, the art of storytelling – and its power to move and persuade – is more essential than ever. The problem is that most brand stories are just not that interesting, or not being told very well. Or both. Yes, yes, there are notable exceptions. But there are precious few consistently great brand storytellers. And in my book, there are none better than Sir Richard Branson.

Branson and Lilley on Necker Island

Branson and Lilley on Necker Island

‪So you can imagine my ohmygod! ohmygod! joy at being invited to join Richard and a group of business, community and creative thought leaders at his home on Necker Island, for the Virgin Unite Igniting Change Leadership Gathering. Run by Australian charity Igniting Change over five inspiring days, the Leadership Gathering explores how business, government and the social sector can better work together. This year’s theme “Inspiring Stories, Inspiring Change” examined the power of stories and how storytelling can be harnessed to promote positive change.

‪Few are better qualified to lead a conversation like this than Richard. He is a pioneer in leveraging earned and owned media, since long before there was any such distinction. And he is a great advocate for creative storytelling in business.

‪ Richard describes most great business people as great creative people first and foremost, for whom business is often a ‘necessary evil’. The sheer creative audacity of his own stories is what makes them so immediately compelling.

virgin tank cola bransonFrom driving a tank down Fifth Avenue to “blow up” the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square for the launch launch Virgin Cola in the US, to his sometimes death-defying stunts (which have seen him nab nine Guinness world records), to countless dress-ups (or dress-downs) for various Virgin launches. Richard is big advocate for the power of a big idea and not afraid to take risks to create impactful brand messages.

‪Make no mistake though, these are always carefully planned and calculated risks. Not all have gone to plan and not all have generated the overwhelmingly positive brand coverage he might have liked. But Richard understands better than most that building a brand on creative stories is a marathon, not a sprint. By consistently launching more successful (than not) brand stories over the course of many years, he has steadily built the reputation of the Virgin brand and its many component businesses.

‪Of course, haters gonna hate and Richard’s ‘stunts’ have attracted their fair share of detractors along the way. He has never allowed this to deter or dictate his strategy though. Virgin is a textbook challenger brand that doesn’t seek to appeal to all, and perhaps even most, potential consumers. Instead, Richard and his businesses seek to intimately understand the customers they want to draw in with their “lighthouse” identity. And he is happy to cop some collateral damage along the way from the rest.

‪Never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Richard’s simplified approach to successful storytelling is also instructive. Every great Virgin story springs from a simple truth about the brand, business or customer being targeted.

But each story is not ladened with distracting facts, details or offers that might otherwise dilute its impact. Richard knows better than anyone that his customers do not need to be spoonfed facts and information to close a sale. As long as he can arouse their interest sufficiently to try his brand, he knows the Virgin experience will take care of the rest.

‪For this to work the brand experience itself must be perfect. Richard is a firm believer that “if you get every little detail right, you’ll succeed”. It’s attention to the details of Virgin’s brand identity that have given it the freedom to flourish. Richard’s stories might always be different, but the core brand story and identity never wavers. Clearly for a business group with as many different interests as Virgin, this is critical. Whether you fly, phone, work out or bank with Virgin, you know exactly what you’re getting. But the lesson is just as relevant for any brand custodian.

‪In fact, they all are. And I suspect the reason so many modern-day brand stories are so bland is because they do the very opposite to what has made Virgin such a success. Rather than taking calculated risks on audaciously creative yet deceptively simple stories that are executed with detailed precision, we are swamped with risk-averse, uncreative and overly complex marketing messages executed with little care or attention to detail.

‪But I’ll allow Richard to have the final word on the matter: “Life would be very dull if you didn’t take big, bold steps occasionally.” Indeed it would.

‪Ben Lilley is Chairman and CEO of McCann Worldgroup Australia.


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