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The ungrateful dread

Sir Richard Branson has garnered millions of column inches in the media over the years, positive and negative in equal measure.

All the evidence is that he does not really mind what people say about him, as long as they do not accuse him of lying.

If you do that, then you can be sure of a writ – as Guy Snowden, the American mastermind of Camelot discovered when he made the mistake of denying that he had offered Sir Richard a bribe. He was successfully sued by the tycoon in 1996.

Thankfully, I am not about to libel Sir Richard and call him a liar but I do wonder sometimes whether there are times when he knows what on Earth he doing, in this case with regard to the launch of a cancer-specific insurance by one of his empire’s many outposts, Virgin Money.

Don’t get me wrong – unlike some IFAs, I am not a Virgin Money-hater. Ten years ago, the launch of a Virgin tracker fund was inspired. Virgin played a key role in raising the issue of management charges as a major component of investors’ fund choices.

As we know, the debate has moved on since then with much cheaper tracker products having come on to the market while the idea of investing solely in a tracker fund is now widely accepted to be a mistake. A core and cluster strategy makes more sense.

A few years later, Virgin was again in the vanguard of financial services product design with its One Account, a mortgage/bank account that has now been widely copied. Sure, others had similar products, but it was Virgin that succeeded in popularising the concept and, in the process, ensured that lots more people opted for the benefits of daily interest calculations plus offsetting.

In between those financial products we have also seen the launch of others, including pension and term cover, not as successful as the above.

We have also seen Virgin Music, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Rail, Virgin Clothes, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vie, Virgin Vision, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Express, Virgin Wine, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Brides, Virgin Condoms, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Cars.

Not all of those initiatives have been an overwhelm-ing success. One or two have died the death or they limp along with only limited success, certainly far less success than expectations for them at their launch. For example, there have been fairly rate sightings of Virgin Cola outside one of Sir Richard’s aeroplanes.

Then there is Virgin Brides. The great man himself , ever the attention-seeking stunt man, was prevailed upon to come along wearing – enough – a virgin-white dress for the inauguration in 1996.

That does not mean these companies should not have been launched in the first place. After all, if you do not take a chance, you will never know whether something might have worked or not.

But what intrigues me is the way in which serial initiatives like this are launched, almost on a whim. For example, I seem to recall a story, possibly apocryphal, to the effect that Virgin Brides was the brainchild of one of the airline’s stewardesses. She pitched the idea to him, he liked it immediately and, hey presto, a new Virgin company was born.

My suspicion is that someone has done the same with this cancer insurance. Someone went to Sir Richard and said: “Hey, did you know that one in seven people get cancer before they hit 70? How about life insurance specifically aimed at people with the Big C?”

The problem is that, in this instance, the product itself is rubbish. But Sir Richard, being the kind of guy who agonises over these decisions for all of a millisecond, probably thought that here was another great lifestyle event to get stuck into. After all, if Virgin can do weddings, sex, alcohol and travel, among many other activities, what’s wrong with Virgin Cancer?

What worries me is that despite the near-universal criticism of it, Virgin cancer cover may well sell to thousands of people who, in their ignorance, are emotionally persuaded that cancer is the only life-threatening disease they must protect against.

Nor do I buy the argument that using the Virgin name to popularise insurance against what is, admittedly, a major killer in the UK, also helps people consider other critical-illness protection.

It is much more likely that people will take out one product only and that, depending on whether they have received good advice or not, that product will either insure against cancer or cancer and most other major dread diseases.

Plus, what happens if these thirtysomething punters do get cancer and, thankfully, make a recovery from the early stages of the disease? How will they feel when they find out that if they had they gone to any other product provider they would have received the full 100 per cent they were insured for, whereas Virgin cancer cover will pay out only 10 per cent?

Will a bloke be so ecstatically happy because he has only lost one testicle that he won’t mind only getting 10 grand from Virgin whereas Scottish Provident would have paid 10 times that? I wonder.

Meanwhile, my tip to Sir Richard is that if he really must get involved in every area of human activity and have a product for it, I have a biggie for him, one affecting up to 50 per cent of people over the age of 40 – Virgin Haemorrhoids. I can see it being a huge success.

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