A marketing consultant once told me that large companies are either "houses of brands" or "branded houses."
Procter & Gamble was a house of brands, he said. P&G's name isn't on products; rather, it pushes a collection of unrelated brands, from Christina Aguilera Perfumes to Tampax to Vicks.
"Virgin is a great example of a branded house," he went on, saying its name is prominently displayed on airlines, a cola and mobile phones, among other products.
I asked for another example of a branded house; he thought for a moment, then admitted he couldn't think of another.
Upon reflection, a few may come close. Apple brings a design sensibility and original functionality to everything it releases, but its brands are interrelated. You use an Apple computer to link to iTunes, then sync purchases to an iPhone or iPad. It's not as if Steve Jobs ponders launching Apple Rent-a-Car.
I had the opportunity to interview Virgin's chairman, Richard Branson, last week in Miami and talked with him about the branded house concept, as well as his plans for new travel products.
Branson had not previously heard the term "branded house," but he liked it. "That's lovely," he said, asking his assistant to make a note about it.
Branson, too, was unable to come up with another example of a branded house. "If you look at the top 20 brands in the world, the other 19 -- Coca Cola, Nike, Microsoft, etc. -- are all specializing in soft drinks or shoes or computers. Our brand crosses about 300 products."
He believes his approach is essential to his success.
"When we started, people would criticize us, saying, 'Branson's balloon is going to burst,' that we've been stretching the brand too far. But Virgin is more a way-of-life brand, and that has strengthened us. One of our very first things was music shops. If that was it, we'd be dead in the water today. The very fact we moved into mobile phones and airlines and health clubs is what protected our company."
Virgin has been called a branded venture capital firm that gives the companies that it backs the boost of immediate brand recognition. I asked Branson if that was a fair assessment.
He said it was "near the mark," but he saw a key difference: Venture capital companies will abandon enterprises that look as if they might fail, while "Virgin's reputation is on the line, so if a company gets into trouble, we'll get in there and bail it out."
And, Branson stressed, Virgin is "more personal."
Earlier that morning, as he walked to a press conference with supermodel Karolina Kurkova (whom he had "arrested" after a stunt speedboat chase in Biscayne Bay, a la "Miami Vice"), he jumped into the pool of the Mondrian Hotel with her.
"Not many venture capitalists would throw themselves in a swimming pool, or jump off a building, or fly around the world in a balloon to put their brand on the map," he said.
Branson said he is getting deeper into travel, expanding into hospitality ("We've got teams of people out looking for the right property, so Virgin Hotels is about to be born") and, eventually, cruising ("Cruise ships are something we've looked at for some time, and I'm sure one day we'll do it").
Branson characterized the Virgin brand as being about "quality. We have to be the best in any field we enter. Great value for money. Great people. Having a lot of fun and shaking up the big guys. We're not often dominant; we're more often the second or third or fourth player. We always take the underdog position, and that's a lot more fun than being the overdog and having someone else trying to hit us in the belly."
His space venture, Virgin Galactic, is tailor-made for the stunt-driven, whimsical side of Virgin, but Branson, who has famously feuded with Virgin Atlantic's rival, British Airways, sees a more practical side to that venture:
"I hope that space travel will result in our taking on British Airways' London-New York route, flying our passengers in half an hour whilst theirs are taking eight hours, or flying to Australia in two hours whilst they're taking 19 hours. We're looking forward to having the biggest smile on our face ever when that happens."
As he said, with Virgin, it's personal.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.