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Re-enforce the ethos of the trench.

August 1, 2016

Lucy Baldwin

How did Burberry turn things around?

How did Burberry transform from Britain’s ‘chavviest’ brand to world premiere luxury label and millennial brand of choice?

Burberry was founded by Thomas Burberry, a British Baptist and tee-totaller. Back in 1879, he invented gabardine – a waterproof fabric that revolutionised rainwear. In the early days Burberry made clothing built for the great outdoors – Roald Amundsen went to the South Pole and Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica, in Burberry. So highly regarded was the Burberry line for its quality and durability that the War Office commissioned it to design the ‘trench coat’ worn by officers in World War I.

Fast-forward to 2002, the Burberry brand was no longer a mark of British exploration, military victory, and class, but the uniform of C-list celebrities such as Eastenders actress Danniella Westbrook. It had become synonymous with ‘chav’; a trademark of the undesirable side of society – the hooded gang member, the trouble causing youth. The negative reputation of the chav check was so pervasive that several pubs in the UK banned people from entering their premises if they were wearing it.

What had gone so wrong?


The release of affordable pieces such as the Burberry baseball cap, priced at 50 pounds brought about a shift from luxury brand to mainstream fashion brand accessible by the masses. Worst still, the trademark check was easy to copy and resulted in a mass of counterfeit goods spanning the UK to China. ‘Chav check’ was stamped on everything from pushchairs to bikinis, and visible on every high street in England.

Loss of identity

The most successful brands have a clear core identity, or foundational idea upon which everything they do is built. Mulberry has the iconic Bayswater bag, Chanel has fragrance No5 – the best selling fragrance in the world, and Cartier the diamond encrusted watch. The rich British heritage of Burberry and it’s strong narrative centring around the iconic trench had been lost over time and the brand had become engulfed in a mire of fleeting trends which were not true to the brands core.

Inefficient supply chain

When Angela Ahrendts was brought in as CEO the brand was in dire straits, with growth at only 2%, it was no longer keeping pace with its luxury competitors. At the time, Burberry had 23 licenses around the world, each doing different things. There was no focus to the range, with over 35 different product categories being manufactured in factories across the globe.

Inconsistent UX

The inefficient supply chain resulted in an inconsistent user experience across the retail network. Each country had their own design director and design team, and as a result each store sold different products, at different price points, made in different places. While polo shirts with checked collars were being heroed in Hong Kong, outerwear was the focus in America. Perhaps worst of all, the iconic British trench coat was being manufactured in New Jersey!

How did Burberry turn things around?

Authenticity at the core 

Many luxury brands are born from a single hero product on which their strategy is built. With one of the most compelling narratives in retail history, Burberry were missing a trick by not capitalising on their historical core. Thomas Burberry created an iconic product; the trench coat was his design made from a fabric he invented. The fabric was originally produced locally in Yorkshire, and supplied to a factory just down the road, where the trench coat was manufactured. The coat got its name after being supplied to the officers in the trenches in World War I. The trend continued into WWII when HM Queen Elizabeth II granted Burberry a Royal Warrant as a Weatherproofer. Angela Ahrendts brought this authentic brand story back to the surface, focusing on the trench as the centre-point of the strategy going forward. Overseas factories were closed, and the effort was focused on making the iconic product locally once more.

A single-minded brand idea

The decision to focus on the trench gave designers and marketers a clear brief. Everything they did, from clothing patterns to advertising concepts would re-enforce the ethos of the trench.

Consistent UX

To execute a single-minded brand idea successfully Ahrendts needed to centralise design. Soon after commencing her role she appointed up and coming designer Christopher Bailey. Introducing him as brand Czar, Ahrendts told the team, “Anything the consumer sees – anywhere in the world – will go through his office. No exceptions.” All design was centralised under Christopher, and Burberry was finally back to behaving like a single brand, rather than a department store. The team established strong sales and communications programs to help sales staff sell the hero trench, all the while championing the brand heritage. The same products were sold in all stores, at the same price point, and in the same way.

White space

At the same time, Burberry shifted the focus of their marketing. They went from targeting everyone, everywhere to a focus on an audience largely ignored by their competitors until then: millennials. As the luxury consumers of the future this audience represented a huge opportunity. But, with little to no awareness of Burberry to date, successfully communicating with them would be a challenge. To succeed, Burberry went forward with a design-led strategy, introducing more edgy, innovative SKUs, trench coats with mink collars, studded sleeves and hints of leather. To complement this more youthful focus, Burberry needed a new face for the brand. Who better to lead the charge than Emma Watson – then probably the most famous teenager in the UK and one of the most powerful millennials in the world. Emma Watson was young and beautiful, but crucially also stylish, classy and intelligent. The youthful face of Burberry continues into present day with Romeo Beckham taking centre stage .

Digital investment

To appeal to a younger audience Burberry had to overhaul their marketing approach, ready for a digital age. The regional websites were consolidated and enveloped into one central platform with the trench coat front and centre. Burberry introduced music, movies, heritage and story-telling to bring the website to life for the millennial audience. They launched social media initiatives like www.artofthetrench.com to celebrate the evolution of the trench and the people who wear it. Burberry Bespoke offered customers the opportunity to customise their trench, online and in store.

Burberry seamlessly integrated online and offline channels with huge screens in store, streaming catwalk shows and viral social media campaigns. Every member of staff on the shop floor was given an iPad to help sell the range. Interactive digital screens gave customers the ability to scan garments and find out about their heritage.

Today, Burberry has put the power of technology in users hands through Burberry Kiss, which lets users press their lips against their smartphone screens to send a virtual kiss to someone.


In five years Burberry’s revenues and operating income doubled, to $3 billion and $600 million, respectively. In 2011 Burberry was named the fourth fastest-growing brand globally by both Interbrand and WPP/BrandZ. In 2012 it was the fastest growing luxury brand on Interbrand’s index. It has recently celebrated this success by opening a new factory in Leeds, and launching a Christmas campaign featuring 13 year old Romeo Beckham as lead.

Equipped with an authentic story to tell, a single-minded brand idea to infuse its designs, a captive audience to communicate to, and a future-proof digital strategy, the future is bright for Burberry.

by Lucy Baldwin

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