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NRF 2017: Five ways to keep your retail brand fresh, according to Richard Branson

Speaking at NRF 2017, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the 50-year-old Virgin Group which has 400 businesses, addressed the retail industry on how to keep a brand fresh in the 21st century.

1. Be prepared to fail

Over his 50 year career, Branson has had his fair share of failed ventures, the most notable of which was Virgin Megastores. Sympathising with the retail industry, Branson admitted it is "a tough business".

The self-confessed prankster described an April Fools' joke played on the music industry in the '90s, where he pretended to invent a box which stored every album and song and the press described the joke as the end of the industry.

"But Steve Jobs was reading this and the joke backfired on me big time. He did it for real and a few years later these Megastores became defunct and there was no reason for us anymore."

Branson also described another failed attempt at shaking up the bridal business. "But what we realised was there were no 'Virgin Brides', so it was not much of a business," he joked.

"People don't mind trialling and failing as long as it doesn't leave people with debt and it keeps their reputation in tact," he added. "Fortunately we've have more successes than failures."

2. Be entrepreneurial

Branson's suggestion for failing retailers is to be entrepreneurial. "With Virgin Megastores, when we saw the writing on the wall for music retailing we realised we don't need to stay a retailer."

He described how he analysed which products were selling well before the demise of Virgin Megastores and realised it was the early days of mobile phones and video games, so he decided to spin off separate businesses. He also pointed to his recording business he created after importing records from around the world. He then sold Virgin Records for a billion dollars.

"It's about using the stores to see what products are selling, and it became much bigger than our retail stores ever could have been," he said.

"People who own retail stores should not think of only being retailers, they need to be entrepreneurial and spin off businesses off the back of the retailer to make them money to help the retail stores survive."

3. Be an optimist

When Branson registered the business 'Virgin Galactic' with Companies House way back in 2004, he also registered the name 'Virgin Intergalactic'. He told NRF attendees: "I'm always the optimist".

And if you're going to disrupt the space industry and introduce commercial aircraft and space tourism, you have to be optimistic.

"I've always dreamt of going to space," he said. "People want to be able to afford it, so it was our challenge to make it affordable and ideally you want a return ticket."

He said Virgin Galactic has 600 engineers working day and night to make this dream a reality, as well as working on side projects such as improving the speed of point-to-point travel to make it faster than Concorde.

He said the project has taken "12 hard years", including a "massive set back" in 2014, where one of its aircraft crashed during a test flight resulting in the death of one of the pilots.

"But nearly all 800 astronauts stuck with us and sometime this year, our new space ship will go into space and I hope to be on it soon after."

4. Be cheeky

When Branson launched his airline, he had one plane and British Airways had 300.

"The way we survived was to be better than them and offer a much better quality of product - and by being cheeky."

He described one story where Branson thought outside the box to get his new brand into the press. In 2012, British Airways was sponsoring the London Eye and was suffering from technical problems to erect the big wheel. After hearing about the troubles Branson said he scrambled together an airship to float above the London Eye which was lying on its side by the Thames. The blimp had 'BA can't get it up' printed on its side and was in all the papers the next day.

"Being a bit cheeky and having a bit of fun is good and not taking yourself too seriously is important," he said. "When Virgin Atlantic flew into LA for the first time, we had someone change the Hollywood sign the night before and people woke up to 'Jollygood'."

5. Take risks

Along with cheeky marketing campaigns, over the years Branson has put himself in some daring situations to make people take notice of the Virgin brand, including attempting to cross the Atlantic and Pacific in a hot air balloon.

His adventures – or publicity stunts – have not always gone smoothly and a documentary titled 'Don't Look Down' was released last year, which follows some of the most harrowing moments of his life.

"When they were going wrong it was terrifying," he said, noting how he now has to watch his children risk their lives instead because they have inherited his sense of adventure.

"I've had some wonderful adventures and been lucky enough to survive them. It did help give Virgin a sexy and exciting brand and initially I did it to put the brand on the map, but then I did it for the adventure."