It’s London Fashion Week this week and I read with interest The Times article which heavily featured the Burberry brand – Jodie Comer was centre stage showcasing the debut collection by the British designer Daniel Lee with a confident and colourful reworking of the Burberry DNA. Backstage, Lee spoke of working with the brand’s archivist to dig out ‘fabrics from British mills from 100 years ago’. There were also lots of duck patterns and when Lee was asked why, he responded, “Because ducks are so British and associated with rain. You can’t get more Burberry than that.”
Not only is this a fascinating story about how to keep a British luxury brand with a rich history relevant to contemporary culture, it also prompts me to share with you the story in our Wonder Women book about Angela Ahrendts who became CEO of Burberry in 2006 at a time when there was a real need to restore the pride in the brand.
The story starts with a brief history of the brand, goes on to describe how it lost its way when it became associated with ‘chav’ culture, and how Angela Ahrendts quickly identified the root of the problem, the changes she made, and how the decision to focus on the brand’s heritage opened up a wealth of creativity.
Restoring the pride in the brand – Angela Ahrendts – Burberry
‘Growth is good’ sounds like a go-to marketing rule but the story of one famous British brand suggests otherwise and it was a woman who identified and then rectified the problem.
That brand’s story begins in 1856, when a 21-year old, former draper’s apprentice called Thomas Burberry opened a store focusing on outdoor clothing. In 1880, he introduced gabardine, a hardwearing, water-resistant yet breathable fabric into his jackets and coats.
In 1911, Burberrys, as it was then known, was chosen as the outfitter for Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole. Perhaps the biggest turning point for the brand came in 1914, when Burberrys was commissioned by the War Office to adapt its officer’s coat to suit the awful conditions in Belgium and France. The result was the trench coat.
After the war, the trench coat became popular with civilians and, in the 1920s, what was to become the iconic beige Burberry check was created. It was used as a lining in the best-selling trench coats.
In 1955, Burberrys was taken over by Great Universal Stores, which instigated a period of innovation in a drive for growth. Base products like the trench coat, the Piccadilly raincoat and the cashmere scarf were all relaunched, all with much greater focus on the Burberry check. Burberrys became one of the most sought-after luxury clothing brands in the world, worn by a host of stars including Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Sellers and Ronald Reagan
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, in an effort to exploit the appeal of the brand, Burberry started signing more and more licensing agreements with manufacturers from all around the world, to (mass) produce new and what they hoped were complementary items. These included suits, trousers, shirts, sportswear and accessories but also pet-ware, baseball caps and buggies. Nearly all featured the beige check.
However, as the new century arrived, the image of the brand started to decline, rapidly and dramatically. Burberry went from being perceived as a premium, luxury brand to one that anyone and everyone could, and did, wear.
Burberry became associated with ‘chav’ culture, a term defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes.” The availability of lower-priced products and the proliferation of counterfeits that ‘borrowed’ the Burberry’s check, as well as the brand’s adoption by B, C and D-list celebrities and football hooligans wasn’t consistent with an exclusive premium image.
A much-publicized photo of a former ‘star’ of the television soap-opera EastEnders in 2003 prompted one commentator in The Scotsman to write, “Admirers of Burberry’s trademark check sighed and slung it to the back of the wardrobe after Daniella Westbrook, a self-confessed addict, publicly overdosed on Burberry.”
In 2006, there were changes at the top of Burberry. Rose Marie Bravo, the chief executive who had led the brand to mass market ‘success’ through licensing, retired.
Angela Ahrendts replaced her, and when later interviewed by the Harvard Business Review for their January-February 2013 issue, she remembered the early days of her tenure.
“When I became the CEO of Burberry in July 2006, luxury was one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world.
“With its rich history, centred on trench coats that were recognized around the world, the Burberry brand should have had many advantages.
“But as I watched my top managers arrive for our first strategic planning meeting, something struck me right away. They had flown in from around the world [in]to classic British weather, grey and damp, but not one of these more than 60 people was wearing a Burberry trench coat.
“I doubted that many of them even owned one. If our top people weren’t buying our products, despite the great discount they could get, how could we expect customers to pay full price for them?”
She was quick to identify the root of the problem.
“[Burberry] had lost its focus in the process of global expansion. We had 23 licensees around the world, each doing something different. We were selling products such as dog cover-ups and leashes. One of our highest-profile stores, on Bond Street in London, had a whole section of kilts. There’s nothing wrong with any of those products individually, but together they added up to just a lot of stuff – something for everybody, but not much of it exclusive or compelling.
“In luxury, ubiquity will kill you – it means you’re not really luxury anymore – and we were becoming ubiquitous.”
There was no central control, different factories around the world were doing their own thing, and in many cases, they didn’t even feature coats. Ahrendts set about changing things.
She appointed the designer Christopher Bailey as the ‘brand czar’ and gave him the ultimate say in the brand look and feel. Bailey recounts, “I told them, ‘Anything that the consumer sees – anywhere in the world – will go through his office. No exceptions.’”
She closed the factories in New Jersey and Wales – the latter had been making polo shirts – and began re-investing in the Castleford facility, which made the heritage rainwear. She and Bailey also took the brand back to its origins.
“When I became CEO, outerwear represented only about 20% of our global brand business. Fashion apparel and check accessories were leading our strategy.
“Surveying the industry, we realized that Burberry was the only iconic luxury company that wasn’t capitalizing on its historical core. We weren’t proud of it. We weren’t innovating around it.
“The decision to focus on our heritage opened up a wealth of creativity. Christopher and the designers and marketers all started dreaming up ways to reinforce the idea that everything we did – from our runway shows to our stores – should start with the ethos of the trench.”
They removed the brand’s iconic check-pattern from all but 10% of the company’s products, bought themselves out of the licensing deals and even out of the Spanish franchise that was worth 20% of group revenues.
A bold and brave strategy that hurt at first but then started to pay dividends – big dividends.
In that same 2013 Harvard Business Review interview, Ahrendts could proudly claim, “Today, 60% of our business is apparel, and outerwear makes up more than half of that. At the end of fiscal 2012, Burberry’s revenues and operating income had doubled over the previous five years, to $3 billion and $600 million, respectively.”
She also noted that pride in the brand had returned too.
“If you [now] ask a Burberry senior executive how many trench coats they own, the answer is likely to be eight or nine. Everyone has a packable version. Everyone has a white one. Everyone has an evening one. We have all different lengths. As for me, I don’t have an exact count, but I can safely confess to owning a dozen.”
You can read more stories like this is Wonder Women – Inspiring Stories and Insightful Interviews with Women in Marketing