Richard Branson’s Success Strategy


Does Richard Branson have a strategy for his success?

Yes, he does.

Strategy+Business magazine summed up the strategy in 1998 like this:

“Mr. Branson has entered one business after another in which he perceived a customer set that was being underserved by a fat and complacent dominant player. Whereas most would avoid such elephantine competition as British Airways or Britain’s entire financial services industry, Mr. Branson sees a ‘bigger, softer underbelly’ that is vulnerable to attack. He calls it the “Big Bad Wolf” theory. ‘We look for the big bad wolves who are dramatically overcharging and underdelivering,’ he explains.”

Branson described his strategy to CNBC in 2017:

“I love to sort of tilt at very big companies and see if we can shake them up and keep them honest and come in with products that are a lot better than their offering,”

Branson explicitly seeks out opportunities to create a new, fun, higher value brand in markets where there were stale, overpriced incumbents, to better serve consumers.

He identifies the market opportunity, researches the  opportunity, designs and creates the brand, finds the right talent to lead the company, launches the company, and promotes the brand.

He has done this successfully for airlines, telephones, and gyms – and will all likelihood do it again in the future.

Does this strategy always work? No. It failed dramatically when Branson took on Coke with a Virgin Cola. Business Insider lists 14 Virgin brands that have fallen by the wayside.

But it works often enough, and well enough, to have made Branson a billionaire – and a global icon.

What else makes this work?

Richard Branson has some key skills that underpin his strategy.

These include that

  • Branson is a master at launching and supporting a brand with publicity, and that
  • Branson maintains a phenomenal network of smart, influential people across industries, who he can turn to when looking into new markets or opportunities.

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Was there a consistent pattern to Steve Jobs’s success?

Richard Rumelt, a strategy expert, found an answer.

Rumelt had the chance to interview Steve Jobs in 1998, after Jobs had come back to Apple and turned Apple around.

He wanted to know: what was Jobs’s strategy for turning Apple around?

“Steve, this turnaround at Apple has been impressive. But everything we know about the personal-computer business says that Apple will always have a small niche position. The network externalities are just too strong to upset the de facto “Wintel” standard.

So what are you trying to do? What’s the longer-term strategy?

He just smiled and said, ‘I am going to wait for the next big thing’ … which for him was Pixar and then, in an even bigger way, the iPod.”

If we look over Steve Jobs’s career trajectory, it was a sequence of waiting for the “next big thing” – and then riding that wave.

Jobs did it in the 1970s with the rise of the personal computer, riding that wave of opportunity by releasing and selling the Apple I in 1976 and the Apple II in 1977, and the Macintosh in 1984.

Jobs did it with the rise of digitally animated movies with Pixar.

Jobs did it again with the raise of digital music and the iPod, and then again with the rise of consumer smartphones and tablets in the 2000s.

Jobs consistently operated with the same underlying strategy – wait for the next big thing … and then ride that wave.

It didn’t always work out as well as he hoped – the Lisa and Next for example weren’t the kind of successes that Jobs had envisaged.

But it worked out well enough, often enough, to make him a billionaire and a global influencer and game changer.

Was there something else at play?