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BW Businessworld

The Showman Of The Skies

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This book on Richard Branson is worth a read, but not for the reasons the author intended. In his second book on Branson, British writer Tom Bowers sets out to rip through the hype that surrounds Branson and challenge his image of a rock star entrepreneur and heroic, anti-establishment buccaneer.

The exposé doesn’t quite work for two reasons. First, Bowers is outraged by the gap between Branson’s self-proclaimed image (‘a defiant tycoon risking danger’) and grubby reality (‘a one-dimensional poseur’, ‘a dealmaker’). Is it really so shocking that an entrepreneur uses self-glorification in order to maximise profit?

Bowers is imposing a high moral standard on a free market operator, and one suspects that these standards are being applied to ensure sensationalist zing rather than uphold a set of ideals. The same convenient naivety runs through all the chapters, as we are told that Branson skimmed the surface of various businesses, using his charisma to take advantage of gullible partners and the general public. It’s a question of perspective. If you believe that Branson is the product and the brand, and he merely uses the ‘Virgin wrapper’ to make existing businesses more appealing, then many of these revelations are a non-event. The second problem with the exposé is that it is guilty of the same crime that Branson is repeatedly accused of: hyperbole. The author gleefully describes how Branson ‘shuffled’, ‘dashed’, ‘dived’, ‘struggled’ or ‘grappled’ his way through a series of catastrophic business decisions.

However, there are also two good reasons that make this a good read. First, it offers a rather unusual perspective on some fascinating industries and individuals: there are some great chapters about private space travel and Burt Rutan, F1 and Ecclestone, the music business, etc. What also works well in this book is its rigorous analysis of a branding genius at work. Once you get past all the moral huffing and puffing, you glimpse the methodology of a man who has managed to stretch a brand in all kinds of directions without breaking it.

Jayal is MD, Wieden+Kennedy Delhi

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 16-06-2014) ]]>
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