David Blecken
Jan 8, 2015

Companies that fail to value marketing 'dysfunctional': Former Virgin Atlantic boss

The path from marketing director to CEO is not well-trodden in Asia. In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong, Steve Ridgway, the former boss of Virgin Atlantic, explained why he believes companies would benefit from more marketing-oriented thinking at the top.

Ridgway: branding should be a priority for every CEO
Ridgway: branding should be a priority for every CEO

Ridgway, who is now chairman of branding consultancy StartJG, started out as a marketer and remained one at heart as he progressed through the ranks of the business world.

Ridgway joined Virgin Atlantic in 1989 and became chief executive 12 years later. He stepped down in 2012, and is now on the board of organisations like shipping operator Scandlines, AIM Aviation and Visit Britain, as well as Start.

Working as marketing director and later customer-services director at Virgin Atlantic before becoming chief executive helped Ridgway to connect the company’s brand promise with reality, he said. As chief executive, he remained very close to the marketing function.

“I got a very good view of what marketers were promising and what everyone had to deliver, but I argued it was all part of customer service,” he said. He added that he believed the role of the brand, and in particular distinctive brands, is more important than ever in an age of “information overload”.

“With the global economy picking up, people are realising that their companies are only going to benefit if they have good marketing propositions and if they develop brands,” he said. “My role in these businesses is not necessarily being an accountant and slashing costs. It’s about helping them develop, and that’s really by building their brands.… All companies have to have a proposition. You have to market your service and have to build a set of truth and values around what you do.”

He said the failure of the C-suite to work closely with the marketing function in some instances was regrettable.

“If it’s still like that, companies are being quite dysfunctional and not joined up," he said. "Any business is selling a service and marketing promise and they have to deliver that promise. Developing your proposition and believing you have one superior to your competitor is fundamental, whether you’re an accountant, a law firm, an airline, or Apple. You need good technical skills and supply chain [etc] but in the end it’s all about brand.”

His advice to Asian brands looking to expand into Western markets is to “adopt the clarity and simplicity that consumers expect”. While he does not believe Chinese brands had yet made a major impression, he said that “it absolutely can be done”, particularly given the fact that major Japanese multinationals had “stuttered” in recent years.

Having gathered momentum, periodical reinvention is still necessary for brands, he said, noting that companies still “leave a lot of money on the table” when it comes to brand-building.

“They let their brands get stale,” he said. “I think it’s important that brands evolve and reinvigorate themselves. Virgin Atlantic is in the fifth iteration of itself and that’s why it’s remained very fresh-faced and continues to attract new groups of consumers.”

So is Ridgway optimistic about Virgin Galactic’s prospects given its recent setback? “It’s a fantastic product,” he said. “Anything right at the frontier of technology is not for the fainthearted. Taking spacecraft to the private sector and on an affordable basis is what happened in all other sectors that have become major consumer sectors.”

 

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