For those of us old enough to remember the 1990s, there was one sign that seemed to feature outside almost every popular nightclub: “Smart dress. No Burberry.” The British design brand had become so synonymous with so-called chavs that its iconic check pattern was a byword for youths with poor employment prospects. Often paired with imitation Adidas tracksuits and Argos jewellery, Burberry suffered a serious brand identity problem. Sales actually went up in the 1990s but of course, the buyers weren’t exactly Burberry’s target market.
Part of Burberry’s problem was that it lost its focus. In the 1990s, keen to compete with other luxury clothing brands, it expanded its range of clothing and leather goods. From socks to dog collars, everything featured the Burberry check pattern. The luxury goods market was a crowded marketplace and soon the brand not only found itself struggling to compete but its competitors were making inroads into outerwear, previously Burberry’s strength. Burberry was forced to close factories, make staff redundant and there were many a management shake-up.
When Angela Ahrendts became the Burberry CEO in 2006, she had a clear vision of how to transform the company and stuck to her plan despite mounting criticism and even Parliamentary hearings regarding the closure of the Burberry plant in Wales. She cites an executive meeting early on in her tenure as the turning point. With over 60 people flying in from around the globe into a wet and cold Britain, she was shocked to see that not a single one of them was wearing the iconic Burberry trench coat. Knowing that the margins on a trench coat were ten times what they were on a polo shirt, she shifted the focus back to core products.
She used the talents of Christopher Kane, a fashion designer with whom she had worked at Donna Karen. Ahrendts appointed Kane as her “design czar” and effectively put an end to worldwide licensing in which different product lines and price points were seen in countries around the globe. By making the brand less ubiquitous, Ahrendts also made it aspirational once more.
Ahrendts also used digital media to strengthen the brand. She spearheaded strong staff training programmes that emphasised the quality and heritage of the brand. Now the shop sales teams weren’t just trained in how to sell but were brand ambassadors who could wax lyrical about the hand stitching and how Ernest Shackleton wore a Burberry trench to the Antarctic. Staff were equipped with iPads and audio visual aids were installed in each store to underscore the brand messages.
By 2009, Burberry had launched its own social media platform, theartofthetrench.com. The site which features icons and celebrities wearing the trench, is squarely aimed at millennials. More recently, the brand took its digital reach even further with the launch of Burberry Bespoke, an online service which allows customers to design their own unique Burberry trench coat from over 12 million different options.
Burberry is now a classic example of how 21st century technology can be used to emphasise brand heritage. But there’s no question that the brand owes much to Angela Ahrendts’ unwavering vision.