Burberry's E-nvasion

This month LuxuryFacts shares with you insights and stories on perhaps the most innovative and dynamic turnaround for a luxury brand. Burberry gets its groove back and in Facebook parlance - WE LIKE!

By: Salman Z. Bukhari

Posted on: December 10, 2011

Burberry old trench coat adThe Knight you see mounted on a horse holding that flag fiercely in the Burberry Equestrian Knight logo is not a man. You might think it is an insane thought, and you may have been right about the gender a few decades ago, but fast forward to today, glance through the recent history of this British label and you may understand what we mean.

The brand was founded in 1856 when 21-year-old Thomas Burberry, formerly a draper’s apprentice, opened his own store in Basingstoke, Hampshire, England. By 1870, Burberry’s business had established itself by focusing on the development of outdoors attire. 1880 saw Thomas Burberry invent the gabardine, a hardwearing, water-resistant, yet breathable fabric, in which the yarn is waterproofed before weaving. What followed then were milestone moments in the life of the brand when in 1914 Burberry was commissioned by the War Office to adapt its officer’s coat, to suit the conditions of British contemporary warfare, resulting in the modern day ‘trench coat’. Post war, the trench coat became popular with civilians, and over the years, it was popularized by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films, and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s amongst many others earning the brand Royal Warrants from both Queen Elizabeth and The Prince of Wales.

1970s could easily be labelled the worst period in the life of this brand, and the decades that followed steadily pushed it towards extinction. It all started with Burberry’s popularity with the British football casual cult, leading to it to being associated with chavs, hooligans and members of football firms by the 1990s. The South Wales police ran a drive against anti-social behaviour under the name Operation Burberry and Burberry admitted that “Burberry is now synonymous with Chavs and thugs.” Not an image a luxury brand would ever; I mean ever, want to associate with.

With the entry of a New Yorker, Rose Marie Bravo, as Chief Executive Officer in 1997, it was hoped that the brand would be revitalised. She brought in Kate Moss to star in an advertising campaign, along with many new designs and products. However, the company still blamed weak Christmas 2004 sales in the UK on adverse media coverage. A few years down the line, another woman – Angela Ahrendts – was made in charge of this ailing brand, and before you could finish saying ‘Prorsum’ (Latin for forward), Burberry did just that. It moved ahead to become a $2.5 billion revenue generating business, 13th most innovative brand in the world, 4th fasted growing brand and retailer of the year in 2010.We obviously have missed a major link in this story, you might wonder. How can a dusty, dying soul be kick-started into something so young, energetic and brilliant that defies every marketing logic? It was to be written off, but the ladies at Burberry do not think so. Not yet.

Burberry Rose Marie BravoAt a recent luxury conference held in New Delhi by Economic Times and CII, we heard the story from this lady knight in checked armour and came away inspired. Ms Ahrendts has a simple approach to a complex problem, and that was the starting point of the brand’s turnaround. A single creative force in the form of Christopher Bailey was appointed as the be all single point contact on everything which the brand showcases to the world, making operations simple and focused, while she took charge of the business aspect of the brand. Together they soon realized that for making anything out of this daunting task of reviving, they need to lead the business with innovation and creativity. You can say the time is right and the knight was observing the trends shaping up the society - Digital.

The next move was to speak to a new audience - youngsters. Marketers can attest that this is a group of most disloyal, finicky and demanding consumers. Individually, they may hold a lower propensity to spend, but together, well…the youth have changed governments with their smart phones, Twitters and Facebooks. It was just needed to strike a right chord to make Burberry relevant for another 150 years to this group and that’s it, the battle is won. What about old Burberry consumers? The team surely realized that way too much damage was witnessed by the past Trench lovers or haters. A fresh start with new generation will help the brand cultivate its image the way it wanted to – giving birth to Democratization of Luxury.

Bailey and his creative team put together looks and campaigns that utilised the brand’s core aesthetic values and identities – the Trench, the checks, the Knight logo, a liberal usage of the canvas brown colour and young British models and ambassadors – the latest one being Harry Potter’s Hermione – Emma Watson. The brand celebrated its roots and the young liked what they saw.

But this was not enough. This ‘Young-Old Company’ wanted to be seen, day after day, minute after minute, in the most cost effective way by as many young people, and these very people had some digital device which connected them to the world using Internet. Digital took centre-stage with the appointment of John Douglas, who became Burberry’s Chief Technology Officer, taking the platform and the brand itself ‘From the back of the bus to the driver’s seat’ in Angela’s own words.

Angela Ahrendts for BurberryThis brand realized along the way that in order to appeal to the youth, it also needed to be young in its mind-set and approach, which should be reflected within the organization. Their over 70% under 30 years of age executives are testimony of how serious they were to make this battle a success.

The first movement was to create a connected culture in this connected world. This they did with the creation of Burberryworld.com which went live in more than 50 countries in over 8 languages in 9 months flat. What the brand aimed to do through this online portal was to give a truly unique and rich Burberry experience on a digital platform, sharing the merchandize and also their stories in an engaging fashion. Today around 60 youngsters work 24X7 in shifts to bring the brand alive on the digital platform through this site and social media vehicles.

Burberry then created a unique property when it decided to give the brand a sound. It brought under spotlight upcoming unheard of artists who in-turn gave the brand exclusive musical content. An e-world fair deal.

For Burberry, being creative in its approach was working, especially creativity done with intuition. However, when you are a publicly listed company, and have shareholders breathing down your neck, it is advisable to confirm facts before acting on intuitions – and this is exactly what this team did as it took the brand from the physical world to a virtual reality.

The power of social media in marketing cannot be disputed. It is alive and growing each day. Burberry utilized this channel to launch its new line of Fragrances - Body and the make-up line that followed. What many, many Vogues and years of prime time TV could not do, a simple site used by millions did in a matter of minutes as the campaign went live. Today on Facebook alone, the brand has over 9 million plus fans who have sworn their allegiance - all youngsters -  the i-will and i-can generation.

What matters for Burberry today is Mind Share over Market Share, speak to the right people, through the right medium, don’t push, engage, don’t shout, converse and have a dialogue, and of course have a solid foundation of great designs. That is your product after all. Everything around it, physical or otherwise, is experiential, adding a richer layer to the overall brand experience enticing every sense.

Even knights sometimes get into trouble when they get associated with wrong company. Burberry learnt this lesson the hard way. But when the guards changed, and in-came these valiant women, over the resulting din they caused, you could hear their voice alone, just one word – Prorsum!

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