Richard Branson: Humour can boost a company's profile more than an ad campaign

Is Virgin Volcanic for real? Practical jokes for practical business reasons.

Matthew Landry at Wikipedia

Recently, Virgin announced the launch of a “groundbreaking’’ new business—groundbreaking because it would be dedicated to journeying into the core of an active volcano. In our press release, we described plans to use patented carbon-carbon materials pioneered for deep-space exploration in order to develop a revolutionary new vehicle, VVS1, capable of plunging three people into the molten lava core of an active volcano. In its first three years of operation, we said, VVS1 would explore the five most active volcanoes in the world.

The new business would be called Virgin Volcanic, sitting alongside Virgin Galactic and Oceanic in our portfolio of exploration and adventure businesses. Like Galactic, the project would help carry out important scientific experiments, with the goal of learning to monitor and control active volcanoes. Virgin Volcanic planned to power the VVS1 probe by using heat from the molten lava, thus developing a totally renewable energy source.

I said that I planned to go on the first expedition, which would take place in 2015, and my fellow “Volcanauts” would be rapper of the Black Eyed Peas and actor Tom Hanks. We provided detailed drawings of what VVS1 would look like. A number of film stars and celebrities had endorsed the project.

There were some clues in the press release as to the inauthenticity of this brave new venture: we dated the release March 31 but datelined it from the Republic of Vanuatu, an island with two of the most active volcanoes in the world. Vanuatu is 10 hours ahead of Britain, so our release would have been actually sent to London on April 1.

At Virgin, we take the business of fun seriously—our designers, social media and public relations teams worked hard to pull together the Volcanic materials in a short time. To many, our prank may seem like a waste of time and effort, as there is no immediate commercial benefit, but I have always felt a sense of humour and the ability not to take oneself too seriously are important attributes for any company.

That joke put smiles on people’s faces and reminded them of Virgin’s sense of adventure—in many ways, it was more effective than a series of glossy ads. Our sense of humour is what makes our companies stand out in terms of customer service, and what attracts great people to work for us. We have always tried to cultivate these qualities throughout the company, partly through our pragmatic management style.

Since Virgin’s early days, I have played pranks every April Fool’s Day to make people laugh, to draw attention to our brand, and also to remind employees of our company’s founding spirit. These jokes have subtly highlighted Virgin’s pioneering spirit—and in fact, some in the media speculated that Virgin Galactic and Oceanic were pranks when first announced.

This Virgin tradition may have indirectly been responsible for the creation of iTunes and the iPod, which, ironically, ended up killing our Virgin Megastores music chain. In 1986, I pulled the music industry’s leg by telling Music Week, a British music publication, that Virgin had set up a giant computer in Britain, on which we had stored every music track we could find. We were about to launch “Music Box,” a device that music lovers could use to download any track, wherever they were. The headline was “Branson’s bombshell: The end of the industry.”

Many music moguls called that morning to beg me not to do it. At lunchtime, I announced that the whole story was an April Fool’s joke.

Steve Jobs told me that he too had read the story. Some years later, when he had once again become chairman and CEO of Apple, he thought to himself, “Why not give it a go?” The moral of this story is, if you’re going to tell others—even as an April Fool’s joke—what you think the future of your industry might look like, you had better be sure that your company has a plan already in place, or the joke will be on you.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin group of companies.