If Brands Truly Believe In Values, They Must Practise What They Preach

Many years ago when I worked at the Daily Mail, I made the dreadful mistake of expressing my thoughts. Well, one thought in particular.

Richard Branson, I pleaded in conference, was a ‘good thing’. A dynamic, swashbuckling entrepreneur who literally flew the flag for Britain, a homegrown disruptor with a perma-grin, making business less boring. With hindsight, my outburst was unwise timing. We were in the process of running a series of articles written by Tom Bower that would later lead to his coruscating biography of Branson which painted him as a megalomaniac hypocrite, and less than saintly too.

Needless to say, I wasn’t involved in the subsequent editorial process, although my admiration for what Branson has done – and for the high-quality offerings of many of the Virgin brands – remain undimmed, despite having read a book dripping with poison.

The Mail has always had a thing for Branson, criticising him and his businesses at every opportunity. And why not? It’s a free country. If you have an agenda against someone, express it – as long as you stay within the boundaries of the law and have some facts to back it up. It’s why our newspapers are looked upon so enviously by the rest of the world. There are no sacred cows here and freedom of expression and belief is valued more highly than a reluctance to upset.

They key words here are beliefs and valued. We have become a society in which both are more important than ever. We carefully consider inviting brands into our homes now rather than just do so unthinkingly. We want them to represent more than just the product, they need to reflect us in some way, promote values and beliefs that we hold dear. Governments don’t just make policy, they govern – and live – according to a defined set of values and beliefs that we the wider populace recognise as sacrosanct. And if they don’t, they’re out with unparalleled swiftness. Advertisers, public relations companies and marketers don’t just sell ‘useful’ things – the need of something is sometimes secondary to its values.

And so a brand known for trumpeting its values openly was always going to embarrass itself by taking on another brand that is equally sure of what it believes in. Recently, Virgin Trains had to backtrack on its decision to stop selling the Daily Mail. In announcing the ban, a Virgin spokesman said that the Mail – strident in its opinions about Brexit, immigration, political correctness, rising rail fares and corporate greed (among other things) – was ‘not compatible’ with Virgin Trains’ brands or beliefs. In an internal memo justifying the decision, bosses added they objected to: ‘the Mail’s editorial position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment’.

As do I, but I still read the paper – along with every other national – each day. I need to for my job, which entails helping brands and executives understand their customers better and help them tell stories which engage more effectively. But I also like the mix of shouty opinions, pointless gossip, erudite analysis and well-written concision. I don’t agree with much of it but does that make me a hypocrite for buying it?

Hypocrisy is certainly a problem for Richard Branson and the complex web of Virgin companies that he fronts.

I have no desire to visit Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates for the sole reason that it refuses to recognise Israel. Remember how we were aghast at that video of the judo winner mumbling words to a different tune because the organisers refused to play the Israeli national anthem? Does the UAE care if we boycott it? I doubt it but I do anyway. Values you see. I suppose Richard Branson and Virgin were grateful for the UAE’s $380m recent cash injection, despite its unforgiving religious and political stance being entirely incompatible with the company’s more liberal stance.

Living in one of the most polluted areas of Britain, I walk, cycle and do anything I can not to use my car or public transport. I still fly – yes, I’m a hypocrite and I’m lucky enough to be in Virgin’s Flying Club – but I do all I can to minimise my impact on the environment. I try to live by some values. Meanwhile, Virgin and Richard Branson – adamant that we must do all we can to protect the environment – are spending billions on rocket-fuelled space tourismthat is as far from ‘green’ as you can get. This article by Naomi Klein is brilliant on his and others’ green credentials.

I think it’s wrong to promote gambling on platforms where children are frequent visitors – Virgin does. We all abhor human rights abuses, Richard Branson certainly does. Yet his company recently announced an investment to transform 50 islands in the Red Sea, owned by Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its shocking human rights record.

I’ve ceased a close friendship with someone who deliberately – and gleefully – cheats the taxman of millions. I like him but I can’t stand his values, I find them incompatible to our friendship. I suspect notorious tax exile Richard Branson, whose values on responsible capitalism I share, would not feel the same should they ever meet.

Of course, I’m as big a hypocrite as anyone. I do still drive and fly, buy plastic, work for Middle Eastern companies and am a willing participant in tax-avoidance every time I pay cash to the cleaner or builder. But, like Paul Dacre in that features conference long ago, I’d never do anything to prevent people from expressing thoughts that I disagreed with.

No one should value censorship above freedom. I’m still an enthusiastic Virgin customer and a huge fan of Richard Branson but, even though he eventually saw sense, the company tainted itself by forgetting the central truth about brands and their values. Your words need to match your actions.

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