Richard Branson: Capitalists can learn from the anti-capitalists

Taken from the Red Cross Lecture, delivered by the Chairman of Virgin at the Royal College of Physicians, in London
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The Independent Online

You should never underestimate the power of the brand. My critics constantly accuse me of over-stretching the Virgin brand – if I had £1 for every time that someone said that, I'd be a very wealthy man!

In its almost 150 years history, the Red Cross has built a phenomenal brand across the world. In October of last year, a study into global brand recognition found that the top three are the Michelin man, the London Underground logo and the Red Cross.

I will use the airline business to try and explain my own belief in the power of the brand. When we went into the airline business, we certainly didn't go into it with the principal idea of making money. We went into it because I spent a lot of time flying other people's airlines. I felt that there must be a better way of doing it and that it could be more enjoyable.

We've always had a policy of trying to put our staff first. The staff should come first, the customers second and your shareholders third. If you take that approach you'll find that everyone wins. Happy staff result in happy customers, lots of happy customers result in happy shareholders!

Short-haul, low-cost airlines such as EasyJet, RyanAir and Virgin Blue were really conceived by Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines in America. He was the pioneer of a new populistic approach to travelling. He would rather have a full plane at $49 per ticket rather than a half-full plane at $200 per ticket. He tried to a create democracy in the airline business believing that working for SouthWest Airlines was not a job – it was a crusade.

By sticking to their principles, Southwest Airlines has saved consumers billions through a just and reasonable fare structure. The product that they deliver is a wonderful contribution to society. They make it possible for people to fly who could never have afforded to in the past. It isn't just a business that makes money – what is so exciting is that it's a company that changes the business environment.

Here's a quote from a Chief Executive of another airline which Virgin have had a few run-ins with over the years: "What you pursue in business, in my experience, is monopoly for yourself and maximum competition among your suppliers and, therefore, there is nothing wrong in any company eliminating competitors. Competition is about eliminating competitors; it's not about competing."

Subsequent to that Chief Executives' speech, that particular company did drive a number of competitors out of business but they also ended up ruining their reputation, damaging it for many years by behaving in what many people believed to be an inhumane and unethically responsible way. It's worth remembering this!

One of my staff was recently very moved when she read the following quote, which depicted the earth's population shrunk to a village of precisely 100 people. The most horrifying statistics were as follows – six people would possess a staggering 59 per cent of the entire world's wealth and all six would be from the US . Of the rest, one would be near death, one would be near birth, only one would have a college education and one would own a computer. 50 would suffer from malnutrition and 70 would be unable to read.

Companies must and can play their part. Bill Gates has set a fantastic example in giving back much of the vast wealth that has been created by Microsoft into trying to stamp out some terrible problems in Africa. The rest of us, with relatively less wealth , must all play our part for the sake of humanity but also for the sake of our companies, employees, and ourselves.

We should learn from the anti-capitalist marches. They threw their bricks through McDonalds' windows. But not through Body Shop. Why? The fact they targeted McDonald's was more a matter of perception than reality, but all companies must strive to give capitalism a name than doesn't result in riots. Capitalism is good. But benevolent capitalism is better!