To his critics, it is an obvious step for Richard Branson to be launching a Virgin cola. After all, cola is largely made up of sugar, water, froth and lashings of hype.

But this time, Branson is serious. He sees cola as part of a broader strategy to move his Virgin empire into consumer goods and to turn it into an international brand.

He has already launched a Virgin brand of vodka, to be made for him by the company behind Glenfiddich whisky, and a Virgin personal computer, which will be manufactured by Britain's biggest computer company, ICL. The Virgin label is also applied to some flights to Ireland and Greece that are operated by other companies.

These new ventures will complement his Virgin Atlantic Airways, his chain of luxury hotels, and his radio station - all of them part of one of Britain's largest privately-held business conglomerates.

Branson's venture into soft drinks is the confirmation of something that has been developing for years: his Virgin Group has ceased to be a mere business; it has become a global brand of great value. Proof of how aware Branson is of this value is his increasing vigilance against imitators. Anyone who launches a business containing the word 'Virgin' is at risk of being accused by Branson's lawyers of pretending to be associated with the billion-pound empire that he runs from the sitting-room of his house in Holland Park, west London.

Yet the Virgin chairman has succeeded in doing something extraordinary: while building a huge business with formidable ambitions, he has won great public affection from a country that is normally suspicious of businessmen. This popularity was underlined on Monday by the release of a poll showing that when young people were asked who should be given the job of rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Nineties, Branson was the favourite choice after Mother Teresa, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A symptom of this paradoxical success is the strong public identity between Branson and the companies he runs. People who fly Virgin Atlantic see him on video during their flight. Those who can afford pounds 10,000 a night to rent his private island in the Caribbean are invited to stay at 'Richard Branson's place'. It would be hard to find people wearing Marks & Sparks underwear who tell their friends that they bought their knickers from the Sieffs.

Richard Charles Nicholas Branson's early career is well documented. Born without academic talent into a family of judges, he left Stowe School at 16 to start Student magazine, and moved into mail-order record sales a few years later. No matter that he wasn't interested in music, or that he had someone else choose his records for him years later when he was invited on the Desert Island Discs radio programme. In 1969, Branson saw a chance to make money from the abolition of fixed retail prices for records, and immediately placed an ad for his new mail-order house in the final issue of Student.

The 1971 postal strike called by Tom Jackson forced the cash-starved mail-order company to open a record shop; then Branson created a record label, and a management company to serve as an agent to musicians. He also borrowed pounds 25,000 from Coutts Bank to buy a country house in Oxfordshire, which he turned into a recording studio with a pounds 5,000 loan from an aunt. His father, a barrister, was not rich enough to be able to bankroll him.

In those early years of ceaseless energy and unlimited cheek, plenty of corners had to be cut. When a BBC film crew arrived to interview the young record tycoon, they asked to interview a group that had signed to his label. No matter that the label did not yet have a single artist; Branson simply rounded up a handful of friends who talked dreamily to the cameras about why they loved recording for Virgin.

Less wisely, Branson ran foul of the law. Noticing that he could reclaim purchase tax on records when he exported them, he took to driving a Transit van full of empty record sleeves down to the Dover docks, claiming a tax rebate on them, and then driving the van around the docks and straight back to London. He was caught in 1971. But the tearful Branson seemed so truly contrite that Her Majesty's Customs & Excise decided not to pursue the matter. In return, he paid pounds 53,000 in taxes and charges.

By 1984, the success of the Sex Pistols and Boy George had made Virgin Records one of the country's most successful independent labels, and Branson was ready to bring in a new managing director to prepare the company for a stock-market listing.

Then his life changed. A lawyer called Randolph Fields brought him the idea of starting an airline - and four months later, the first Virgin Atlantic jet took off for New York.

The audacious plan was also to turn Branson into a household name. Together with Fields, Branson posed for the press in Biggles-style goggles. He filled the maiden flight with celebrities and journalists, and the Virgin myth was born.

Two years later, the man had become more famous than the airline. His successful attempts to cross the Atlantic by speedboat and by balloon served two purposes: they satisfied his hunger for adventure (he nearly lost his life twice); and they helped to bring his name, and that of his business, to a wider public, not only in Britain but also in the United States and Japan.

Yet it is not only his talent for self-promotion that has made Branson so popular with young people. Branson also has the stirrings of something that is sadly rare in British business: a social conscience. Worried about the spread of Aids, he launched Mates condoms to raise awareness of safe sex - and sold the rights to the brand for pounds 1m, which he then put into a charitable foundation. He helped to pay for a campaign to change the law on selling cigarettes to children. And his bid for the National Lottery, unsuccessful though it was, won widespread sympathy because of his promise to give all the profits to charity.

But young people would not vote him their favourite role model if he were just a do-gooder. Branson is also the epitome of political correctness. He wears 'those awful jerseys', as one of his terribly English aunts calls them. He gets drunk at parties, throws people into swimming-pools, and dresses up in women's underwear. He believes in the legalisation of marijuana, and admits that he has taken not only acid, but also cocaine. He is against homophobia, as you might expect from the owner of Europe's biggest gay disco. And he smiles.

That is the key to his business success. Branson is nice to everyone who comes to meet him - even the cynics who consider him overexposed and shallow. He avoids saying 'I', and only occasionally falls into the Margaret Thatcher trap of referring to himself as 'we'. And he is genuinely modest. He runs a Range Rover rather than a Rolls, and that's only because he was given one as a present. He leaves to others the uncomfortable job of firing staff who have outlived their usefulness. He is polite to the three secretaries who manage his overburdened diary. And when he flies to the States, he takes the bus into Manhattan along with the cabin crew.

Underneath all this, there is, of course, real business steel. The small offices scattered across west London are friendly, but they are also cheap to run. Although it may not look like it, Branson avoids risks; when he started the airline, he forced Boeing to give him an option to sell the aircraft back after a year if the venture failed. He is a brilliant negotiator. He is a formidable lobbyist whose arguments have won him not only radio franchises on both FM and AM, but also extra slots for his airline at Heathrow Airport - without giving a penny to the Tory party. He pays for the very best legal advice, and has been taking it ever since he issued his first writ at the age of 19. He has lawyers to protect his interests when business deals go sour, and accountants to make sure that most of the hundreds of millions of pounds that he has made is legally protected from the taxman in offshore trusts.

Branson's secret, then, can be summed up in the Latin proverb ars est celare artem: art lies in concealing the art. Although he is no less a businessman than Sir John Harvey-Jones or Lord Hanson, he doesn't look like one. Who can blame Lord King for having failed to see behind the fluffy beard and the teeth? After all, the Virgin chairman is rarely pictured sitting behind a desk, holding meetings, looking at cash-flow projections. If he were seen more often in public doing what he is really good at, he might be a little less popular.

Virgin King: Inside Richard Branson's Business Empire' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 17.50.

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