Described by Sir Richard Branson as ‘our other genius’ and ‘the man who made the difference’, John Varnom established practically single-handed a brand image for the Virgin empire that still persists after Virgin’s 43rd year in business. From ground-breaking press, radio and TV commercials & scripts, press releases that even the BBC read out in their entirety, through complex and delicate legal documents, speeches for Sir Richard before the British Institute of Directors to timeless logos and brands for entire record labels – the Front Line logo & name for example – John Varnom’s style, wit & prose influenced a generation of UK advertisers and journalists.

A love of food and cooking lead to the restaurant business for John, where his London restaurant Varnom’s was voted one of the city’s top 20. John took his expertise to the USA, Palm Beach and the Hamptons, London again, Singapore then France and Italy.

Interview: John Varnom Authorial Interview

Q1: How has your work with Virgin created some of your larger ideas about business products and marketing movements?

A: Almost always, the first people see of a new product is not the product itself but its marketing materials. If those marketing materials make a bad impression – the colour, general design, proportions, overall feel, any underlying assumptions – then these negatives will transfer to the product. But if your customers like the ad, if there’s no cultural dissonance, if it fits their mindset, especially if it entertains, they’ll transfer these likes to the product.

Guinness, for example, has been particularly good at being wry and entertaining. In the old cigarette days, Benson and Hedges did quite well with the mysterious and beautiful landscape approach. Currently, cosmetics companies try hard to produce marketing that depends purely on feel – like the feel, so like the product. The pity there is that most of the humans you see in cosmetics advertising are people you’d only hang around with if you were turned down by your mother.

This brings us to a sort of second phase: informative marketing, which tends to come into its own later in the day, when a product has become established, when consumers start using their heads to distinguish one brand from another. But always remember that graphics communicates through the heart, not through the head.

Finally, of course, you have to make sure the product itself does not disappoint. And you will notice that this point comes almost last. To go back to Virgin, at the start we did have a product that people actually wanted- cheaper records. But the feel of the ads won their attention. Later, with the label, we had the Guinness problem: how do you sell taste, or sound, using pictures? We solved that by persuading buyers that, with a Virgin record under their arms, they ran the risk of being mistaken for someone who was both funny and discriminating, with all of the social advantages such judgments confer.

Q2: You have a great deal of writing experience. Were you the main writing voice in putting together FMCG: The Power of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods?

A: The sentences and the facts the book consisted of had been put together before I arrived on the scene. It is fair to say that, whilst I did not interfere with the facts, many of the sentences required dismantling, cleaning thoroughly, and then re-assembling. It is thus possible that my reassembly style may have contained elements that could be described as an authorial voice. There genuinely is an authorial voice in both the introduction and the conclusion, which I did write. Incidentally, my use of the word ‘many’ above, may be an underestimate.

Q3: Writing cookbooks, owning an inn, and building a new restaurant, are your taste buds inspired by marketing ideas?

A: Technically speaking, I believe that is physiologically impossible. But if you are asking whether menu content is driven by marketing ideas, then in a sense, yes. In London, for example, it is difficult to sell pork dishes, whereas in the countryside they fly.

Nouvelle cuisine, very heavily marketed when it appeared, radically changed plate lay-out, including mine.

Then there are ingredients. Once upon a time, Asian ingredients – fresh ginger, coriander (cilantro), lemon grass, fish sauce, dried shrimp, wasabi and the whole gamut of Indian spices never appeared in dishes that looked European. Now they appear everywhere. It’s the current fashion, and fashion is a very close relative of marketing. It’s the same story with Italy: olive oil, pesto in all its varieties, polenta, balsamic vinegar, balsamic reductions as sauces.

So yes, to the extent that such ingredients tend to be expected on a menu, I would devise dishes that featured them. (I was the first London chef ever to incorporate Asian ingredients, by the way, in 1984 at my Isingtion restaurant Varnom’s).

Q4: FMCG: The Power of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods functions as a history of major brands and marketing plans. How is this information helpful to restaurateurs?

A. In a general way, it shows how to do two things: firstly how to redress sales failings within your operation and secondly how to look outside what you’re doing now at other symbiotic business you might move into or acquire.

Q5: Older advertising, such as Virgin ads from the 80s, has specific layouts and strategies that worked well during the time period. Do you find that print advertising has changed a great deal since the internet became a popular media outlet?

A: Like the rest of the world, it’s become much more risk-averse. And of course, some of the technical terms have changed, so ad copy changes correspondingly. The brain-death-inducing fug of political correctness hasn’t helped much either.

List advertising – advertising that always has to carry a great deal of information – has always had little room to manoeuvre in terms of design. Pure display has always had more scope, and generally uses it. Fortunately, good design hasn’t changed and it may well be that it can’t. The Golden Section, for example, remains visually pleasing to us humans, as do particular musical harmonies: they’re a function of how we are put together.

Q6: Is there a particular product you’ve discussed in FMGC that has a particularly interesting history or future, in your opinion?

A: A couple of ideas spring to mind. In the detergents industry, a soap powder that stops you losing socks would make a fortune. Betty Clocker might also do well in Chinese home baking.

But at a more serious level, FMCG is very often about food, and the industry rather paradoxically distributes food around a globe on which many people – sometimes fairly close-by – are starving. If there were ever a case for creating a symbiotic link, this is it.

Q7: Do you have a particular way of putting together marketing strategies that you could discuss briefly? For example, do you begin by exploring the product, the company, or the ideas brought to you?

A: There are some important criteria that good marketing must try to satisfy:

-It should be fresh
-It should speak in a voice that the consumer recognizes as his or her own
-But it cannot be the consumer’s actual voice: it must also be aspirational
-And inspirational
-So it should be adding something the consumer might well not have considered
-It should demand, from its paymasters, an unmistakably clear brief
-It should be as clear and concise as possible
-It should arrange its choice of media so that they overlap (‘I’ve seen that somewhere before!’)
-It should be attractive
-It should be catholic in its tastes (note the small ‘c’)
-It should not exceed the budget

Q8: Working for Virgin and Richard Branson, how did Branson’s focus on ecofriendly products affect your marketing plans, if at all?

A: I did once produce some ecological lavatory paper* for Virgin but that was about it. In the days when huge herds of placidly grazing hartebeest roamed freely across the plains of London’s Oxford Street, green issues were not prominent in the capital’s hunter-gatherer minds.

Q9: How do you feel about business start-ups? What are some basic ways businesses can keep marketing ideas on track and focused?

A: Analysis:

-Have you set a budget?
-Have you spent your budget?
-Does it fit the other assumptions in your spreadsheet: do the percentages match?
-Do you have ways of checking the efficiency of each medium?
-If not, why not?
-If yes, are they reliable?
-How do your marketing marketing assumptions tally with other sales assumptions you’ve made?
-Is the media spread reaching all elements of your market?
-If not, why not?
-If yes, is the return good enough?
-If not, is your marketing rubbish?

Q10: In your opinion, how important are advertisements in pop-culture?

A: Marketing is certainly vital in pop culture, as is the medium, which will certainly be very heavily digital, and within that sector increasingly heavily mobile. But now, to answer the question, we have to distinguish between advertising as a particular element of marketing against all the rest. I take it to mean a formal set-piece, specifically created and designed, and with a placing that’s been paid for, which sounds rather old-fashioned.

But that’s as maybe. The fact is that the advertising will work if:

-It’s seen by enough people
-Via the appropriate medium
-And it’s good (see many of the criteria listed above for Q7)
-So, we have an ad that works. Its importance is another matter, and part of that importance will be determined by how good the -ad is, because, clearly, a rubbish ad has no importance at all. One element in the answer therefore depends on the ad itself.

But a second part depends on the very many other factors now available to marketers that weren’t available in Virgin days. Then, you couldn’t have launched a product without formal advertising. Now you can. So this does mean that advertising itself has become less, possibly much less, important. You could do without it. Annoyingly, whether you want to may depend on an issue I’ve already mentioned: how good the ad is. And there are two lessons here:

There’s no formula to determine the current importance of advertising
Very little beats a terrific idea

Q11: Can you explain if there any ads you’ve found worthy of remembering?

A: Yes. And here it is. It was a huge bill-board that stood for years on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Next to it was a massive fiberglass figure, with two heads, Polynesian, wearing a grass skirt, carrying a spear, with a necklace of teeth, staring ferociously at the passing throng. I used to like to say that it introduced me to all the basics of marketing that I’d ever need. Please note that the typography is crucial and the billboard was designed to be read at a distance of several tens of yards. Here is the copy:

Naturally, inside the building housing this individual was a second fiberglass figure just like the one outside. Disappointed punters – disappointed is a very mild description in many cases – had their attentions directed, by very large men in tight T-shirts , to the ‘if’.

Interview by -Stacey Wood / Editor FEDP

First Edition Design Publishing

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