BRANSON'S AMERICAN INVASION AIRLINES, APPAREL, COLA, INSURANCE, RECORDS, SPIRITS ...
By LESLEY DOWNER

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Midnight at Carre, Brussels' hottest nightclub. Madonna's "Like a Virgin" blasts from the sound system. The screens at the back of the stage, emblazoned with a giant label for Virgin Vodka, fly apart, and a familiar bearded figure bursts out, grinning hugely.

It is the launch party for Virgin Vodka, and Richard Branson is in his element. He may be Britain's most-high-profile entrepreneur, and he's surely one of her gutsiest (his latest plan is to go toe-to-toe with Coca-Cola and Pepsico in the U.S. soft drink market), but tonight his rock-star side is uppermost. He greets his adoring staff, kisses the women, and presents the evening's prize: the key to the large chastity belt of a white-clad "virgin from the Virgin Islands."

You may remember Branson as the man who descended the front of his new $15 million Virgin megastore in Times Square standing on a huge silver bubble or who recently wooed Washington with a bad banjo band to hype his airline. But he isn't simply a self-promoter with a flair for the outrageous (with no holds barred as far as taste is concerned). In Europe, Virgin's $2.6 billion business empire stretches from planes and trains to mutual funds to condoms. (Mates, not Virgin.) You can fly throughout Europe or across the Atlantic on Virgin Atlantic, having insured your life with Virgin Direct; listen to Virgin Radio; and get married with the soon-to-be-launched Virgin bridal service.

Now Branson wants Virgin to achieve the same ubiquity in the U.S. that it has in Europe. Plans for the immediate future include a 30-screen Virgin cinema complex in New York City, more transatlantic flights, a Virgin megastore in every city served by Virgin Atlantic, and (pending trade agreements) a low-cost Virgin Express service within the U.S.

Most audacious of all, Branson is also plotting a pitched attack on that quintessentially American business, cola. Announcing his plans in a typically brash way is a 40-foot Virgin Cola billboard right above the Times Square Virgin megastore, strategically placed to butt heads with the famous Coca-Cola sign nearby. Quipped Branson at the time of the launch: "The signage alone was worth the rent of the entire building. The store is a bonus." The cola business, of course, isn't exactly a niche. It is a huge, cutthroat market with extremely powerful players. Can Virgin Cola possibly make the smallest dent in the formidable armor of Pepsico or Coca-Cola, which have a combined $48 billion in worldwide sales?

The battle is already on in Britain, where Virgin Cola has been on sale for two years. It is priced 15% to 20% below Coke and Pepsi; last year, Coke and Pepsi blocked Virgin from getting crucial shelf space in half the nation's supermarkets. So far, Virgin Cola has never managed to increase its market share beyond the 8% it achieved when it was launched. Meanwhile, Coke doubled its U.K. advertising and promotion budget to 40 million [pounds] ($64 million). As Rob Baskin, Coca-Cola USA's spokesman, says, "We take all competition seriously."

A wise strategy: Branson's already shaken up several industries, like transatlantic flights, where Virgin is the third-largest carrier linking Britain and the U.S., after British Airways and American Airlines.

One thing that makes him such a formidable competitor is that people seem to want him to win. Branson has made himself into a kind of people's capitalist, a Robin Hood figure taking on big conglomerates on behalf of the consumer. In Britain, a country traditionally suspicious of success, he manages to be rich, successful--and extraordinarily popular. In polls he crops up as a possible prime minister, and he was listed after Mother Teresa as someone suitable to rewrite the Ten Commandments. This persona, of course, generates priceless publicity for Virgin.

Obviously, there is a steely business brain behind the antics, the beard, and the tieless shirt. What remains to be seen is whether the he can do in the U.S. what he's done in Europe--or whether his brash approach will bring him down with a splat.

--Lesley Downer

LESLEY DOWNER is a freelance writer based in London.