Richard Branson: Formal attire can be a barrier to reaching your customers

Suits and ties are an anachronism that may be costing you customers.

While out walking in London recently, I passed a group of uniformed school children moving in an orderly, single-file line, with teachers in front and rear. Nothing unusual, except for one thing that made me laugh out loud: their identical school ties—or, more accurately, what was left of them. More than half of the kids had cut their ties so that only three or four inches remained below the knot.

Intrigued, I asked the teacher who was bringing up the rear, “So what happened to the ties?”

He chuckled and said, “Well, the kids hate wearing them, but school rules say they have to. What the rules fail to specify, however, is how long they have to be—so, snip-snip!”

Why didn’t I come up with such a naughtily innovative solution when I went to school?

The uniforms caught my eye because Virgin just got into the banking business with the acquisition of a U.K. bank that we are gradually rebranding Virgin Money. In Britain, few things strike terror in the heart of a customer quite as much as the prospect of facing a tie-wearing, three-piece-suited bank manager across a huge mahogany desk. So we redesigned the banks.

One of our first changes has been to remove the traditional counters and replace them with informal seating areas. We also thought that the staff ’s formal business attire was almost as solid a barrier to customer friendly experiences as those counters were. Our newest group of Virgin employees were told they could dispose of the ties.

This would suit me—I have always hated ties, maybe because I’ve never seen the point. They are uncomfortable and serve no useful purpose. I am lucky to have always worked for myself, and therefore have never been a victim of corporate dress codes. For years, a sweater and corduroy trousers were my standard business attire. Someone once joked, “The day Richard shows up at the bank wearing a suit and tie, you’ll know we’re in serious trouble.” Lately, I have taken to wearing a jacket, which is handy since I encounter many different climates and situations through my business travel. But I will only wear a tie under extreme duress, which usually means some ultra-formal occasion, such as a state dinner.

Suits and ties in an offi ce are just another type of uniform, but in an arena where uniforms no longer serve any useful purpose. At one time, they probably showed that the wearer was, at the very least, able to purchase and maintain a fairly expensive piece of fabric. Now, however, in an individualized, interconnected culture, your achievements speak for themselves. The suit and tie is an anachronism.

It used to be that the one male in the room with an open neck (which was usually me) would be self-conscious about it (which was not me). Nowadays, I am delighted to note that it’s the man wearing the tie who is most likely to be the odd person out.

Probably one of the biggest breakthroughs in the gradual demise of the suit-and-tie dress code came, rather surprisingly, in some lofty political circles. Tony Blair was one of the first British prime ministers—Maggie Thatcher excepted—to frequently appear in public without “proper” neckwear. Now, President Obama has carried it to a level where he seems to be tieless almost 50% of the time.

I have always prided myself on throwing out the rule book when a rule proves a barrier to business—or is just plain silly. And there is no viable argument why “gentlemen” should wear ties. The best anyone can muster is: “It’s expected,” or “Everyone else will be wearing one.” One sign business culture has changed is that when people arrive for a meeting with me, often the first thing they ask is, “Do you mind if we remove our ties?” They surely never thought, “If we don’t wear ties, we’ll stand a lesser chance of getting the deal done.” Why wear them at all, then?

So on behalf of the oppressed tie-wearers of the world, here is my appeal to those corporate despots who still force their male staff to daily put nooses around their necks: please think again.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies