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  • June 19, 2013

Former Virgin exec on building brand reputation and customer trust

Here at Responsys, we couldn't be more excited to be welcoming Will Whitehorn as a keynote speaker at Interact 2013 London next week. A former Virgin executive and 'right hand man' of Richard Branson, Will led one of the most groundbreaking business ventures of the 21st century: commercial space travel. He brought it from a nascent dream in the mind of Richard Branson to a project with real spacecraft, test flights, a spaceport, and imminent daily flights one hundred miles above the Earth's surface. I spoke with Will about some of his experiences while at Virgin and how marketers can be successful in this new relationship era of marketing.

Q: You previously worked at one of the biggest brands in the world, Virgin Group. Tell us about your time there.

A: As a brand, Virgin has changed a lot over the years. It started off as an independent youth-music brand associated with the punk revolution and quickly transformed into a global reputational brand associated with entrepreneurialism, competition, innovation, quality, value and a sense of fun. I joined the company in 1987 and became group corporate affairs and brand development director, working closely with Sir Richard Branson on some of Virgin’s larger-scale projects for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains. I was also president of Virgin Galactic, the commercial space travel arm of the company which we took from a simple idea to a groundbreaking business venture that is the first of its kind.

Q: You were once considered Sir Richard Branson’s ‘right hand man.’ What was it like working so closely with him?

A: Inspiring, to say the least! He taught me three key things that I apply to pretty much everything I do. The first is, examine everything and don’t take no for an answer until all questions have been properly thought through. The second is, don’t be scared to try new ideas and equally, don’t be scared to call it quits if one of these ideas isn’t going to work – there’s no shame or embarrassment in honest failure. The last learning I took from Sir Richard is the most important – never do anything in business that questions your integrity and never say anything you would not be happy to say in a court of law. Reputation is everything, and it’s much easier to think about your actions and their consequences before you actually act!

Q: Interact 2013 is about coming together to move marketing forward. One of the themes we’ll be focusing on is why marketers need to put the customer relationship back at the heart of their strategies. How can marketing professionals start doing this?

A: Consistency has to be built into all of your dealings with the consumer. That builds trust. Consumers hate uncertainty; they need reliability and a brand that understands their preferences, likes and dislikes. They want to feel like you’re reliable when they need something from you and you can always deliver. As such, you have to be prepared to engage honestly and consistently in bad times as well as good, in order to keep the faith. Reputation is the absolute differentiator between marketing success and failure. In the case of Virgin Galactic, it couldn’t have sold US$80m of deposits for science and tourism space flights without the brand being trusted for safety, innovation and delivery.

Q: Can you give a couple of examples of companies that have successfully built a strong, impactful brand reputation?

A: I would say Apple and Red Bull. Apple has been incredibly resilient and determined through a long cycle of continuous change and has always stayed true to its core values and principles. Red Bull is quite similar to Virgin in its quirky, brave and record-breaking stunts.

Q: What can Interact 2013 attendees expect to take away from your presentation?

A: I’ll be talking about my time at Virgin and how the company built its brand into one of the most recognised in the world. At the heart of Virgin’s marketing success is customer centricity, leadership, ambition and innovation – there are no limits to ambition, as long as the organisational structure can be innovative, as well as the products. Virgin is a great example of this. I’ll also be discussing how Sir Richard Branson applied common sense, natural marketing flair and a vision of the possible to create a business empire based upon the simple notion of branded private equity.

Check out our stellar line-up of keynote and customer speakers for Interact 2013: http://www.responsysinteract.com/london and be sure to follow #MKTG13 on Twitter to join the conversation about moving marketing forward.

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