Pamela Anderson, the Sherman tank and the failed invasion of America

Pamela Anderson, the Sherman tank and the failed invasion of America

Most of the stories I have written are about successes but you can learn a lot from failure, not least to accept it and move on. So this week the story of a brand that started well but quickly faded and then died.

Pamela Anderson, the Sherman tank and the failed invasion of America

Since Richard Branson started his first business in 1966, the Virgin name has been applied to close on a hundred different companies. Everything from railways to make-up, from vodka to video. Some have been incredibly successful like Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Media. Some haven’t. In fact, some have been incredibly unsuccessful, sinking without trace. This is the story of one of the biggest failures. 

Virgin Cola was set up during the early 1990s in conjunction with Cott, a Canadian company that specialises in bottling own-label drinks. Cott was looking for a major brand that could have global appeal and thought they had found the perfect match in Virgin. 

Branson too had high hopes for the brand and having secured a distribution deal with Tesco in 1994, the brand got off to a flying start.

“The business that looked like it was going to become the number one business in the world was Virgin Cola. 

We decided to take on the might of Coca Cola. 

We had a great brand. 

We had a great product

It tasted better than Coke.

We launched it in the UK, we were out selling Coke, outselling Pepsi, and for one wonderful year we had dreams of Virgin Cola being the brand on everybody’s lips when they wanted on buy a soft drink.” Branson recalls


However after that first year things got a lot tougher, Coke went on the attack increasing its marketing spend and doing widespread promotions which reduced any price advantage Virgin offered. Soon Virgin Cola started to lose share and with it shelf space and even distribution.  

Virgin tried to respond. In 1996 they decided anything Coke could do they could do better and they launched “The Pammy”. 

The Pammy was a specially designed 500ml bottle, with a curvaceously contoured body designed to resemble Pamela Anderson, the Baywatch actress who was at the height of her popularity in the UK. It was both a homage and a pastiche of the classic Coke bottle which is often known as the Mae West bottle as its contours have been compared with those of that famous actress from the 1930s.

The impact was limited and the brand continued to decline

Increasingly desperate Branson decided if they couldn’t beat Coke in the UK why not take the fight to Coke’s homeland, the USA. In 1998 Virgin Cola was launched onto the US market in spectacular style. Branson rode a vintage Sherman tank through New York’s Times Square, taking aim at a huge Coca-Cola billboard. He then placed a 40-foot Virgin Cola billboard right above the Times Square Virgin Megastore.

Virgin Drinks USA subsequently agreed distribution channels with US retailers such as Target but success was again limited and the company closed in April 2001, having managed to establish no more than 0.5% volume share of the market.

In 2002, a vanilla cola called Virgin Vanilla was launched in the UK, ahead of the launch of a similar product from rival Coca-Cola.

In 2007, Silver Spring acquired the UK license. However, in 2012 that company fell into administration and ceased production. No company acquired the UK Virgin Cola licence in its place.

But Branson has learnt to take failure in his stride

“My mother drummed into me from an early age that I should not spend much time regretting the past. I try to bring that discipline to my business career. Over the years, my team and I have not let mistakes, failures or mishaps get us down. Instead, even when a venture has failed, we try to look for opportunities, to see whether we can capitalize on another gap in the market …Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming,” says Branson


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