Fast Company

Virgin Mobile USA's Brand Experience Leader on Breaking Through Competitive Climates

In this Brand Innovator Spotlight, Ron Faris illustrates how brands can thrive in challenge environments by tying into causes their consumers care about and aligning with the right marketing partners.

<a href=Ron Faris" />Ron Faris is Director of Brand Experiences at Virgin Mobile USA. He is responsible for managing Virgin Mobile’s largest brand marketing programs, including lifestyle marketing, events and sponsorships, branded entertainment and cause-related marketing initiatives (including The RE*Generation, Virgin Mobile’s pro-social initiative committed to ending youth homelessness).

Brandon Gutman: How does your brand break through in a competitive climate? What are the principles that guide you as you build your brand in the marketplace?

Ron Faris: At Virgin Mobile, my team has been relentless at building an authentic and provocative brand. A brand with soul. Every experience we build is designed specifically to put the broadest smile on a customer or prospect's face. Our brand experiences are the closest our fans get to touching and feeling the brand. And there are several principles that guide us to telling the right story to the right segment.

First, we never build an experience unless we know it's earned the right to be discussed virally. So many companies out there have such colossal media budgets that they're afforded the luxury to rely on enough advertising to build awareness of their brand or experiences. If there's anything we've learned from our spiritual leader, Sir Richard Branson, it's that a good idea or stunt can spread virally without a penny spent on media. Branson himself started marketing Virgin Atlantic with a modest marketing budget. But in realizing the power of PR (in his case it was ballooning over the Atlantic Ocean with a huge sign that said "FLY VIRGIN"!), he stumbled on a cost-effective method to build lust for the brand.

Second, I really think that these days, customers and prospects expect more from their brands. They expect them to stand for something more than just quality product. Every program and experience we build at Virgin Mobile has a cause marketing component to it through our charity platform, the RE*Generation, which focuses on fighting homeless youth in our country. It's both a personal and professional passion of mine, and the highlights of my days are not in witnessing the success of this program, but rather, watching our partners, celebrities and fans of the brand adopt the issue as their own.

Finally, I think executing the right program always requires the right balance of organization and magic. At Virgin Mobile, we build "moments of wow" -- carefully constructed moments that are meant to surprise and delight the customer. Whether it be a skydiver landing on one of our Virgin Mobile Festival stages, or a concert on a moving flatbed truck hosted by Public Enemy, our experiences are designed to build hype and attract fans to our brand in a fun and provocative way.

Has the recession dampened your marketing efforts?

If anything, we've been emboldened by it. Last year, all anyone heard on the news was either the recession, layoffs, or swine flu. We wanted people to smile again. That was the inspiration to make our festival free to the public and rename it "Virgin Mobile FreeFest". In a climate when festivals were shutting down and fans were struggling to make ends meet, we responded with something unique and found a way to make the most of a bad situation.

What's an example of an experience you've built that "earned the right to be discussed virally?"

FreeFest is an obvious one. But another one that comes to mind is far more intimate. In November, to celebrate National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, we hosted a benefit concert in Washington, DC with Public Enemy. We wanted to add something unique to get people talking about the event (and the issue). Seeing as that youth homelessness starts in the streets, we decided to do the same with our show. We loaded the entire band on a flatbed truck and they played the first half of the show parading down the streets of DC coming from the homeless shelter they had just visited. It was a magical moment for the fans. Washington Post, The Times, and Huffington Post all chose to cover it.

You mentioned cause marketing. How would you recommend marketers position their cause without distracting from the relationship marketers wish to have with their prospects? Can you give some examples?

I think the key is to build a relevant context for your cause in association with your offering in the marketplace. At its heart, Virgin Mobile is a communications company. We connect people. Within our cause marketing efforts, we connect our fans to the issue. And we do it in a relevant and contextual manner. When we launched the RE*Generation, our cause marketing platform focused on youth homelessness, we offered anyone who texted KARMA to a short code the opportunity to donate a hoodie to a homeless youth to stay warm for winter. We partnered with American Eagle Outfitters to supply the clothing and to this day, we've had over 200,000 pieces of clothing donated by fans of our brand. Additionally, when we activated our presenting sponsorship of the Lady Gaga tour, we offered tickets to her sold out show in exchange for volunteering 8 hours at a homeless youth shelter. The program, called "FREE.I.P", was born out of Virgin Mobile FreeFest and continues to inspire artists and fans alike.

How do you make brands come alive without monster budgets?

It's definitely a challenge - doing a lot with a little. I think the key to some of our past successes have been the arsenal of brand partners we've worked with in the past. Over the past several years, we've launched memorable programs with Red Bull, Converse, Toyota, LG, Kyocera Wireless, and American Eagle. In this day and age of modest marketing budgets, brand marketers need to amplify their messaging by partnering with like-minded brands.

What is your secret to remaining innovative?

So many ideas get killed once they leave the marketing nest. Legal starts to assess risk. Finance starts to question the business case. At the end of the day, to execute a truly innovative program, you've got to navigate adroitly across all the key stakeholders and remain steadfast to the core idea. We tend to schedule periodic checkpoints at multiple points during a program's life. If at any time we find that the core idea - the first impetus that made us all smile - if that idea feels diluted in any way, then we quickly find a way to address it. Innovating the idea is only part of the equation. It's really all in the execution.

Brandon Gutman is a founding partner of FOCi Group, a Digital Management Consultancy building and optimizing digital practices for the Fortune 500 community. Brandon and FOCi Group are helping brand innovators utilize emerging technology and new media in order to achieve ultimate performance. Follow Brandon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brandongutman.

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