What we learned from Virgin Cola

Richard Branson in a tank waving
Image from Virgin.com
A close up of Richard Branson smiling, looking at the camera
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 31 December 2019

25 years ago we decided it would be an exciting challenge to take on Coca-Cola. In 1994, we thought wecould knock the soft drinks giant out of their market leading position, and have a lot of fun along the way. We’d had great success pulling the tail of British Airways with Virgin Atlantic, and the big music labels with Virgin Records. Why would cola be any different?

Richard Branson, floats in a pool smiling, holding a bottle of Coca Cola and a snorkel in his arm.  He is wearing a blue wet suit, complete with fins.
Image by Thierry Boccon-Gibod

We got off to a flying start, outselling both Coke and Pepsi in the UK in our first two years. So we started dreaming even bigger…why not take them on in their own backyard, the US? Before I knew it, I was driving a Sherman tank through Times Square, and firing Virgin Cola bottles at the Coca-Cola sign.

But Coca-Cola had a lot more firepower than us. They poured all of their huge resources into squashing us, and soon Virgin Cola was gone from the shelves. The lesson we learned was about the need to put purpose at the heart of your business, and really differentiate. 

If you are taking on a business far larger than yours, you have to be so much better than them. But with two cans of red cola, there wasn’t that much difference in the product. Virgin is all about our people and customer experience – there wasn’t much personal interaction with buying a fizzy drink.

Since then, we’ve learned to only go into markets where we can truly make a difference and shake things up. Whether it’s opening up space for the benefit of everyone on Earth with Virgin Galactic, or making everyone better off with Virgin Money, we put purpose at our centre.

Virgin Galactic's first powered flight
Image from Virgin Galactic

We’ve failed many times, and made many mistakes – and it is because of these that we have had success. Show me somebody who hasn’t failed and I’ll show you somebody who has never tried anything new. It is only by attempting to innovate, failing, learning from that failure, and starting again, that progress happens.