Virgin Galactic crash: Has Virgin lost its innocence?

Andrew Mulholland
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Is it time for Richard Branson to take a step back? (Source: Getty)
To this day, my mother laments the moment I discovered girls. Before then, she forgave me nearly anything. A broad smile, cheeky shrug of the shoulders, and hey presto - I was out of trouble. She could overlook my many antics with an easy smile and a clear conscience. Kids will be kids.
But like anyone else, as I got older, I was expected to grow up. I had a girlfriend and was becoming a man, it was time to judge me by the accepted standards of adults. The cheeky charm that served me so well when I was little no longer cut the ice.
And so it might be for Virgin. To judge its empire solely on its business assets is a mistake, its real value has been its brand, embodied in Sir Richard Branson’s cheeky smile and childlike antics.
But after the tragic events of the past few days, those antics now look worryingly immature. It’s fine for Branson to push boundaries (both personally and professionally), especially when he places his own neck on the line - and to a degree, it seldom mattered whether he succeeded or failed. The point was, he took on challenges which most of us wouldn’t dare to.
However, following the death of Mike Alsbury, the Scaled Composite pilot contracted by Virgin Galactic to test its SpaceShipTwo craft, the Virgin brand has lost its innocence - and that’s dangerous, because it’s the brand that has been the business’ differentiator, the thing that made me want Virgin to succeed, to overlook its many failures, and forgive the train running two hours late.
Now I no longer want to see Branson clutching a semi-naked woman in his trademark pose. As when outspoken Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary announced he was “taking a step back”, perhaps it’s time for the brand to give way to a more grown-up persona.
In doing so, it could answer the million dollar question, “can Virgin keep going without Branson?”. The only sadness is that it may have taken the death of a brave man to be the catalyst to make this happen.
-- UPDATE: This article has been changed to reflect that Mike Alsbury was an employee of Scaled Composite, rather than Virgin Galactic

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