Sir Richard Branson has made a fortune from a string of business ventures that bear his signature brand, including Virgin Trains and Virgin Media.
But Little Red joins a series of failures that have seen Branson fail to break into lucrative markets including soft drinks and alcohol.
Launched in 1994, Virgin Cola was initially available only on Virgin planes and in Virgin cinemas before Branson sought wider distribution. “It tasted better than Coke. For one wonderful year we had the dream of Virgin Cola being the brand on everyone’s lips.” Instead, Branson claimed, “swat teams and bagfuls of money” sent from Coke’s Atlanta headquarters gobbled up his drink, whose market share peaked at 0.5% in the three years it was on sale in the US. In 2012, the UK producer went bust and no one else acquired the licence.
A complementary spirit was born at the same time, but never came close to gaining the same traction – with other alcopop and energy drinks also failing to whet the appetite. The entire Virgin Drinks subsidiary has since folded.
Launched in 1996 with one of Branson’s most striking publicity shoots: he appeared beardless with blue eye shadow in a wedding dress. Its remaining store, in Manchester, closed in 2007. “I think because there aren’t many virgin brides, it never really took off,” Branson later ruminated. “Or maybe it was the picture that put people off.”
Launching the cosmetics venture in 1997, Branson said he expected more than the makeup line to be in100 high street stores within five years. But the venture never really took off, and by 2008 Virgin had to pay an £8.8m dowry and write off £21m of debt for new management to take it off his hands. The resulting high street business was wound up in 2010.
One of the most shortlived of all Branson’s business gambits, a range of men and women’s wear was launched in 1998, targeting high street clothing stores, but wound up within two years. Analysts said the brand never caught on with the younger target market, who were dubious about the price and the fashion credentials of the jumper-wearing tycoon. There were hopes for an underwear line after another firm licensed the Virginware brand to produce lingerie, but the firm collapsed in 2005.
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