By Mylena Vazquez
What’s the first brand that comes to mind when you read those words? I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s Burberry.
Burberry, the British luxury fashion house, created its iconic trench around the late-nineteenth century and introduced its signature tartan check soon after in the 1920s. It really hasn’t changed all that much since.
But the brand itself has. As hard as it may be to believe, it wasn’t too long ago that Burberry fell into deep disfavor. The rise and fall of its image and reputation could be attributed to many factors, but the brand’s rebirth was the result of an intentional, targeted rebranding and repositioning strategy. And what drove this effort, you might ask?
Of all things, it was—and remains—music.
From utilitarian to undesirable
Burberry was started in 1856 as an outdoor apparel company. Burberry jackets graced the shoulders of men embarking on treks to the South Pole and climbs on Mount Everest. In 1879, founder Thomas Burberry invented gabardine, a sturdy, waterproof, and lightweight fabric that was a game-changer at a time when traditional waterproofing methods resulted in stiff, heavy garments. This innovation allowed Burberry to design a coat for the British Army, which was later modified to be used by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. And so the “trench coat” was born. From that point on, it became a staple in the wardrobes of everyone from soldiers to civilians to celebrities, and Burberry started to make a name for itself as a designer brand.
This all started crashing down in the 1990s with the rise of chav culture. “Chav,” a derogatory term used to describe “brash and loutish” young British people from the working class who prefer to dress in heavily branded (often fake) designer clothes. The Burberry check, perhaps the most distinctive pattern in the world, naturally became a heavy part of the chav clothing rotation. Even before then, football hooligans, the decidedly working-class subculture of zealous and regularly violent fans of hometown football clubs, had adopted patterned Burberry gear as a sort of unofficial game day uniform. These affinities made sense. After all, Burberry had gained its initial recognition from outfitting poor, young soldiers—people just like them.
Demise breeds meteoric rise
In the early aughts, these associations proved nearly fatal to Burberry’s image. A 2002 paparazzi shot of British soap opera star Danniella Westbrook, her baby, and her stroller all decked out in the Burberry check was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Burberry, now widely rejected by their upper-class customer base, had become the leper of the fashion world.
This loss of Burberry’s brand equity among the upper classes—evidenced by a 60% decrease in profits in 1997—sparked a major overhaul of the company. They hired new leadership, including a new design director, Christopher Bailey, in 2001. Bailey quickly went to work. He discontinued the checked baseball cap, the item most favored by hooligans. He removed the checked pattern from 95% of Burberry products. Most importantly, Bailey took steps to reframe Burberry as a high-fashion brand, switching to Milan Fashion Week to show collections and introducing luxury accessories to the lineup. By 2008, in spite of the economic recession, Burberry was growing.
Music + Marketing = Makeover
Burberry Acoustic, from campaign to curator
But Christopher Bailey’s strategic marketing efforts extended beyond the traditional boundaries. During his tenure, he cemented Burberry as not just a high-fashion brand, but a patron of the musical arts. To Bailey, music and fashion are not just connected, but interwoven. He once remarked: “We also often talk about the craft of music in the same way that we might cut and sew a trench coat—somebody has made that instrument and now somebody is actually using that instrument to play something.”
But Burberry’s most well-known foray into music-as-marketing came nine years after Bailey joined the brand. What started out as the “Burberry Jukebox”—Bailey sharing the songs that inspired and complemented the season’s collection—blossomed into the Burberry Acoustic campaign in 2010. The ongoing campaign features artists both emerging and established, all British, all dressed in Burberry. One of the earliest of these videos featured Pegasus Bridge, a little-known indie pop rock band, playing a melancholy song in a quintessential foggy English forest while dressed in black Burberry coats. The video has since garnered over one million views.
Burberry’s dedication to music is so intense that in 2015, they partnered with Apple Music to become the first ever brand to have its own dedicated channel on the platform. It was here that in 2018, to commemorate the end of Bailey’s 17-year tenure with Burberry, the brand released “17 Years of Soundtracks,” a playlist of songs curated by Bailey that embodied his contributions to Burberry. This venture served not only to expand the brand’s reach, but to reinforce Burberry’s identity through its music.
Embracing its past with a contemporary take on the classics
Burberry’s image has continued to change and evolve with the times. Bailey’s “classics with a twist” approach has been continued by creative director Riccardo Tisci.
For the 2020 holiday season, Burberry released an entrancing, fast-paced, visually stunning video ad where four young protagonists dance in gravity-defying ways to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”—but not the original. Instead, Burberry tapped Dreya Mac, an up-and-coming British rapper, to record a stripped-down version of the classic song. The video was shot on a grey day in the trash-filled streets of London, but the resulting video was far from gloomy.
In just under two minutes, the ad managed to encapsulate where Burberry came from and where it plans to go. The foul weather paid homage to Burberry’s outerwear roots. The street setting reflected Burberry’s long history of utilitarian wear. The choice of garments and their styling even hints at Burberry’s chavvy past.
These elements, along with the fresh faces, special effects, and contemporary filming and choreography, come together to form an exhilarating, experimental, and thoroughly modern ad.
Burberry has proven that there’s magic in music—and, if harnessed, incredible marketing power.
What’s one song that you instantly associate with an ad? What about it makes you connect to the brand?