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Last year at a conference in Los Angeles, women in black bathing suits and red overcoats mingled with a group of guests that was decidedly much, much older and much, much more male.
It wasn’t an auto show, or a consumer electronics show, or even a sci-fi fan gathering, where behavior like that is the norm. It was the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) for 2016, the annual gathering of hotel brand executives and the investors who finance the properties the brands flag with their names. And the young women parading around were there to promote Virgin Hotels, Richard Branson’s extension into hospitality in the United States. So far it has one open property in Chicago and hotels under construction in Nashville, Tenn.; Dallas, Texas; and next to Skift headquarters in New York City.
Virgin Hotels has been promoted to the public as a female-friendly brand, with apps and snacks geared toward a female clientele. But around the money men and brand leaders, the females they are friendly to are there as hired help, and their clothing is slim.
This obsession with barely dressed, young women is a factor whether Branson is promoting Virgin Voyages, Virgin Hotels, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, or even Virgin Galactic. It extends beyond the Virgin travel brands to anything Branson licenses with the brand name.
The cruise line Virgin Voyages made an announcement last week about its new vessel, and a teaser tweet from the brand continued the tradition:
— Virgin Voyages ⚓️ (@virginvoyages) March 20, 2017
At the event on Thursday, young women with plunging necklines were joined by young men in sailor outfits.
We get it: He likes young, attractive women dressed in a provocative way. Sex sells, and he wants to sell a certain kind of sex appeal that promises a carefree experience.
But while consumer profiles and services for his brands may promote a gender-neutral world, when it comes to announcing or promoting a product, the clothes come off, the age goes down, and the talk makes even Hugh Hefner and Austin Powers cringe.
The British press may like it, but why does everyone else need to sit idly by?
Seriously, how many men or women above the age of 12 thought this April Fool’s Day Twitter Joke from last year was funny?
— Virgin America (@VirginAmerica) March 31, 2016
Richard Branson is a very nice guy when it comes to talking about an equal workplace. The Virgin brand blog has an entire section devoted to women in business. And we know that he has done much to encourage female entrepreneurs — people like Sarah Blakely, the youngest female self-made billionaire in the U.S., regularly credit him as a mentor — to achieve and build their businesses.
When we asked the brand for comment about this story last week we didn’t receive an official statement, but it did respond (in a way) with a new blog post two business days later about the woman leading the brand.
So why is he stuck in a yeah baby! version of promotions? We don’t know. It could be because building a brand beyond simple sex appeal is harder than having a few women in skimpy clothing show up at events in major markets. One could argue that there’s a reason why unsexy Alaska Air had a better route map than very sexy Virgin America did.
It’s not a one-off. Whether it’s a Virgin Atlantic event two years ago where Branson asked the assembled press “Who joined the mile high club on the way here?” or the Virgin Hotels event where he packed a float full of women meant to appeal to sexual aesthetics rather than a consideration of their leadership skills, Branson and his Virgin brand appeal to the least common denominator in a way that is in stark contrast to everything else it does. And every time he posts a tweet about leadership and women we can’t help but think about the time in Miami he handcuffed super model Karolina Kurkova in a boat and then carried her out of a pool while a clearly uncomfortable press corps looked on.
Branson tries to appeal to what he thinks is youthful and sexy, but it’s always old and dated. He’s the carefree uncle who says an off-color joke while everyone else quietly cringes.
So Richard, this is your intervention. Find a new prop for your big events that is not a scantily clad woman. More people are cringing than clapping at your events, and there’s an easy way to fix it. You’ve already proved that you’re so much better than this.