Rebooting the Virgin brand

Lisa Thomas: 'When a powerful brand like Virgin comes calling, it is hard to say no'
Lisa Thomas: 'When a powerful brand like Virgin comes calling, it is hard to say no'

It has been just over a year since Lisa Thomas' transition from agency to client, after the senior suit left M&C Saatchi to join Virgin. Thomas, who is chair of the Marketing New Thinking Awards, discusses switching sides and bringing more focus to the Virgin brand.

One Virgin brand. More than 65 brand licences (not all fully owned by Virgin) including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Holidays and Virgin Trains. Multiple sectors across travel, transport, leisure and entertainment. This is Lisa Thomas’ day job as managing director and global head of brand at Virgin Enterprises. Responsible for the brand globally and its accompanying commercial activities and licences, she’s only too aware of how complex her role is.

"Sometimes we lack focus and my job is to ensure we are brilliant and consistent where it matters. Not just around the brand, the logo – but also around our business mantra: happy people make happy customers, which makes for happy shareholders," she tells Campaign. "Clearly, delivering that against an airline versus a mobile-phone company is different, but being distinctive and memorable from a customer experience point of view is important."

Thomas dismisses the suggestion that her job is as unwieldy as it sounds. Her biggest challenge, she says, is running a brand "that is already so famous and successful". And, of course, it is not just the brand. Its leader, Sir Richard Branson, is just as (if not more) famous. Besides the colour red and the omnipresent halo of the bearded Branson, what else do the Virgin businesses have in common? The consistency with which the various brands use purpose to drive their businesses and customer service was a huge surprise, she explains.  

We don’t set ourselves for failure. But given how big the business is and how many different brands are innovating across the group, we’re not always going to succeed 

"As a business, what we most care about is making sure our people are fulfilled as employees and empowered to deliver an incredible customer experience," Thomas says. "We also want to make sure people come to work beyond delivering a profit."

But Thomas is no wide-eyed romantic. Virgin, she concedes, has managed to become a "people’s brand" because of its association with Branson but it is far from being a Coca-Cola or a Disney: "We are unconventional sometimes, yes, but that is part of our charm." But does the business not come unstuck at times because of this eccentricity? The brand appears obsessed with entering and creating new markets, such as Virgin Galactic, but not all of them work out. Remember Virgin Cola? Virgin Brides? "Richard has set the tone that failure is OK, which is exciting because it gives us the appetite to experiment," Thomas argues. "We don’t set ourselves for failure. But given how big the business is and how many different brands are innovating across the group, we’re not always going to succeed. It’s a culture we are happy with."

Maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit is something Thomas is well-versed in. Her career began at Wunderman and continued in direct marketing at Craik Jones, where she became the first board director outside the founding partners, rising to deputy managing director. In 2000, she co-founded Lida and went on to become chief executive of M&C Saatchi Group, responsible for everything from advertising, PR and social marketing to brand licensing, research and direct mail. The ad industry called her "uber-woman".

On her move client-side, Thomas says: "I’ve always had a commercial exposure. From starting my own business in the form of Lida to being involved in M&A strategies in my group agency role. And when a powerful brand like Virgin comes calling, it is hard to say no. I was of course nervous about it, but was ready to do something new. " She is one of only two women on the Virgin UK board.

Thomas’ first major task is overseeing an internal review of the "mother brand" to understand its values to provide more focus to the brands within the group. Next up is growing awareness in the US. It sure is one complex role, and the stakes are high. But then she is an uber-woman.

Lisa Thomas: how to support women

"I recently heard the Whitbread chief executive, Alison Brittain, talk about encouraging more sponsors and fewer mentors, and I totally endorse that. I would say encourage your company to have sponsorship schemes and find men who will actively sponsor women going forward. 

"It has come to a point when it’s not enough to put your head down and do a good job. We need to push ahead and network. In a world that is still largely male-dominated, particularly at a senior level, it’s hard to see how you get your head above the parapet. So be brave and reach out. Lots of men do that but very few women do.  

"I would also urge you to find opportunities to press for change. We could all do with more than just advice and encouragement – someone to actively help champion and influence progress." 

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