Richard Branson. Picture: SUPPLIED

Richard Branson. Picture: SUPPLIED

A brand that loses its power to surprise or fails to react instantly to customer demands doesn’t stand a chance of survival in a fiercely competitive global economy.

These strong words of advice come from the founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, who was in SA this week to mark the 20th anniversary of his airline’s daily service from Johannesburg to London. And at 66, when some executives might think of slowing down, he managed to spend time discussing the country’s "leadership hiccups" with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, launch a new insurance offering and observe a pack of wild dogs at his private game reserve before pressing the flesh with 200 passengers flying back to the UK on a special anniversary flight.

Branson’s brand philosophy has remained constant over three decades: "Keeping a brand fresh and contemporary comes down to the quality and ability of the people you hire. I’ve learnt to be a good delegator and to watch out for the little things that go wrong and write them down obsessively."

A case in point was an observation from a passenger that, on the new Boeing 787, windows darkened automatically on take-off and prevented people from observing the northern lights on trans-Atlantic crossings. "A simple and obvious thing; but hugely frustrating, so we un-darkened the windows. I suspect many CEOs or chairmen might have nodded politely and done nothing."

Branson, whose famous head of golden curls has given way to a shock of white hair, says modern brands cannot lose sight of surprising and amusing their customers — everything from having flight attendants hide in overhead stowage compartments to startle passengers, to him leading competitions in economy class to see which aisle of passengers can unravel a roll of toilet paper the furthest distance. "So many brands take themselves far too seriously and if a brand isn’t having fun then people will notice."

On a more sober note, Branson has joined a chorus of other business leaders in expressing concern over SA’s direction. "There is undoubtedly huge opportunity in the country in spite of political hiccups. I’m hoping your current leader can get his act together or, if not, someone else can step into his shoes who can. A leader’s job is to be there for their sake of their people."

What of Virgin without him at the helm some day? " I have two children who are active ambassadors for the brand and I hope they will continue in time to keep up the values and traditions I have instilled into the company along with the professional managers who work across the organisation."

He also spoke about his philosophy of breaking rules in business. "Life would be dull if all business simply observed the status quo and conformed. The most successful brands are those that take on bloated giants and beat them at their own game."

He urged leaders to "hire their weaknesses", pointing to his own dyslexia. "I’ve had to find people that not only complement me but are better than me ... and also give them the freedom to make their own mistakes."