Lessons in brand strategy: Virgin Radio and The O2

For brands to move with the times, they need to know what makes them timeless, says David Campbell, the founding CEO of both businesses.

by Staff
Last Updated: 04 Aug 2020

When Virgin Radio was launched in 1993 it quickly gained a reputation for pushing boundaries. It was the first station to make a listener a millionaire and the first to go live on the internet. It managed to project a ‘pirate’ vibe in those early Smashie and Nicey days of naff national commercial radio.     

Seven years later, its founding CEO, David Campbell, who worked for Richard Branson for over a decade and with Chris Evans at his Ginger Media Group, masterminded the station’s sale for £225m.

Fast forward to 2005 and Campbell found himself responsible for what had become a national laughing stock, the Millennium Dome. Rebranded as The O2, it would become the most popular music venue in the world within four years, breaking visitor and ticket-sale records, even toppling New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

As well as heading up Virgin Radio and AEG Europe (which was behind The O2 development), Campbell has since been CEO of The Ivy Collection and Wagamama among other roles. He shared with Management Today the secret of building an enduring brand. 

Brand as a driver of growth

“Authenticity and the ability to evolve without losing identity are what make a strong and lasting brand. It should be able to flex and grow successfully as the environment or story changes,” he says.

Both the Virgin Radio and The O2 brands have remained consistent over the years with just a few tweaks here and there to accommodate digital advancements and business diversification. Why is that important?

“The most successful brands are laser-focused and self-aware. They have a clear understanding of who they are and what they stand for, and how to get that across to the people that matter,” says Campbell. “Too much change can look like a lack of commitment on your part. So it’s important to get those brand pillars in place from the word go so you can persuade your target audience to join you, and then stick with you for the long haul.”

For Virgin Radio, that brand ethos centred on its rock ‘n’ roll attitude and sticking two fingers up at the BBC. It was unashamedly commercial but with an independent spirit. That singular, self-consciously revolutionary point of view was captured in the red star logo with Virgin emblazoned across the centre that still exists today. Over time it’s been tweaked to incorporate new territories (Virgin Asia, Romania, Dubai, etc) and adjust to accommodate digital platforms, but that’s it. 

It’s the same with The O2. Its positioning – ‘A world of entertainment under one roof’ – spoke to the simple fact that it was the first major entertainment district that didn’t expose you to the elements. The O2 logo was devised to allow the O to dominate, which referenced the tent itself and that everything was contained in one circular arena. All of that’s still true, and the brand holds strong.

How to find your brand strategy

You may already have a strong sense of your brand, but you’ve got to put your finger on it and make it tangible to other people, which means really understanding who you are and what your target consumers will get out of your business. All the flipcharts and spreadsheets in the world won’t help here because it’s about emotion and connection.  

Finding a brand strategist that understands your business’s culture as well as your commercial goals is half the battle, says Campbell. “At one end of the spectrum you’ve got brand designers who are very much driven by what things look like and don’t think that deeply about your business needs or culture. And at the other you’ve got the guys who want to get heavily involved in strategy and overthink everything. You’ve got to find the right team for you.” (Campbell has collaborated with brand strategists Thinkfarm “since the last century” on some of his most iconic ventures, including Virgin Radio and The O2.)

It's important not to look at brand strategy as a superficial design or marketing project - there's a lot more to it than coming up with a name and a colour palette. “For a brand to work on a more profound level and impact growth, it needs to exist at DNA level,” says Campbell. “That was essential at Virgin Radio. We wanted people – employees, consumers, advertisers, stakeholders, everyone – to feel they were part of Team Virgin. It was ‘brand as culture’." 

Ultimately, says Campbell, to endure you need to know what can change and what can't. "Brands need to expand, adjust, work across multiple platforms, and still connect and make sense. It’s about evolution. Think of a restaurant – guests don’t want to see the same menu every time they visit an establishment, but they do want to know what to expect.”

Image credit: Andy Sheppard/Redfern via Getty Images

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