Prime-time network TV programmers aren’t known to be big students of philosophy. But when it comes to reality programs featuring big-haired billionaires, the honchos at NBC and Fox seem to be setting up a classic Hegelian dialectic. First came the thesis: Donald Trump. The made-in-America mogul with the starched suits and starched hair headlined last season’s breakout show The Apprentice on NBC. In a few weeks comes the antithesis: Richard Branson. The shaggy, iconoclastic British magnate, whose entrepreneurial drive is matched seemingly only by a powerful death wish, will star in Fox’s The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best.
In an excellent profile of Branson in Fast Company, Alan Deutschman dubs him “the anti-Trump.” And, to a large degree, the two men are polar opposites—as reality TV stars and as entrepreneurs.
The Donald doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. He avoids shaking hands with strangers, sits in air-conditioned comfort while the teams hustle around steamy Manhattan, and dispatches trusted deputies Carolyn and George to monitor the competitors. To judge by the promos, Branson will be an enthusiastic participant in the Fear Factor components of his show. He’ll be right there, riding in balloons, hanging off buildings, hugging and backslapping the contestants. With his every-day-is-casual-Friday dress code, facial hair, and fun-loving sense of daring—his exploits are detailed in his autobiography and authorized biography—Branson seems rather American. Trump, with his cuff links and suits, his apartment tricked out like Versailles on the Hudson, and his intensely hierarchical view of the business world, is somewhat redolent of Old Europe.
But the main difference between the dueling billionaires is in the way they approach business. Put simply, Trump is vertical while Branson is horizontal. And I’m not just talking about Trump’s penchant for erecting skyscrapers and the fold-down seats on Virgin Atlantic’s planes.
Trump’s listing on the Forbes 400 shows that he owes his fortune to a single line of business: real estate. Sure, Trump has written best-selling books, appears in ads, and put his name on a board game. But he’s not in the publishing, advertising, or board game business. He’s in the business of marketing his name. And thus far, real estate is the only area in which he has been able to build a successful business organization surrounding it. The Trump Shuttle failed, and the casino company that bears his name has been a disaster. Trump may enjoy broad recognition, but in the end he’s really only selling one type of product—high-end real estate—to a small group of customers. When he tried to build profitable businesses that pitch services or products to the broad public, he failed. Confined to vertical silos—real estate, book-writing—the seemingly ubiquitous Trump brand name actually has limited commercial appeal and flexibility.
Branson, by contrast, has spent more than 30 years building and extending a brand name—Virgin—into an incredibly broad range of consumer-oriented businesses: first records, then airlines and music stores. Now he’s segueing horizontally into travel, financial services, health clubs, and cellular phone service. Deutschman notes that “his Virgin Group comprises 350 companies he founded” with total revenues of $8.1 billion.
Branson has been and is the highly visible public face of Virgin. But he’s not selling himself or his lifestyle; he uses his personality to get attention for the products and services he’s peddling. As a result, he has been able to transcend both industry and demographic borders. He can make money selling to the ultra-rich and to the broad consuming public by using the same brand name. For the Trump-esque, he’s got a private game reserve in Africa and Necker Island ($40,000 a night) in the Caribbean. For Americans, he’s got records, cell phone service, an airline, and limousines. He has far more companies in Europe. In England alone, he offers a chain of health clubs, a bridal superstore, credit cards, a network of trains, and a travel agency. Virgin Mobile, his publicly held British cell phone company, has about 4 million customers.
Not all of Branson’s forays into highly competitive consumer businesses have succeeded, of course. Virgin personal computers and Virgin Cola never took off. And the jury is still out on several others. But a sufficient number have succeeded to make Virgin a ubiquitous presence in consumers’ lives. “In an annual poll that asks thousands of consumers to name the five brands that had the greatest impact on their lives, Virgin ranked as the number-two brand in Europe last year, ahead of Nokia, Mini, and BMW, and behind only IKEA,” Deutschman noted. By thinking horizontally, Branson has created a platform from which he can continually launch new businesses and diversify.
There’s a final area in which Branson and Trump are polar opposites. All billionaires possess massive egos and a healthy self-regard. And it’s a sure thing that the rumpled Branson spends plenty of time gazing at himself in the mirror and admiring the view. But Branson’s view of businesses is outward-looking and centered on others while Trump regards his enterprises as projections of his ego. Deutschman notes that “the person Branson admires most in the world is his friend Nelson Mandela.” I think we can all guess whom The Donald thinks is the fairest of them all. (Hint: It’s not Melania.)