Admired for her commercial vision and artistic eye, CEO Angela Ahrendts has taken Burberry to the top of the luxury market. WOBI's Lori Greene recently had the chance to chat with her in New York about the strategies she employed and the challenges she overcame in renovating the iconic 156 year old luxury fashion brand. Read some of the highlights of their conversation here…
Without so much as having your foot in the door of Burberry, you already had a new strategy for the luxury brand. Was it difficult to execute?
I don’t look at implementing the strategy as being hard; I think that we were so excited Christopher [Bailey – Chief Creative Officer] and I working together on this great iconic brand celebrating its 150th anniversary the year that I was named CEO. It wasn’t about being difficult; it was more about uniting everyone, communicating to everyone. What Chris and I decided was that the brand already had an amazing story, and that we didn’t think it necessary to start from scratch and write another. We simply wanted to write another chapter that’s exciting, surprising, and big. Our message to associates and partners was one of innovation and moving towards the future.
One of the first things Chris and I did was create live webcasts to reach all employees and explain our vision of the company. Afterwards, it was more about demonstrating coherency. The five strategies we established five years ago still hold strong as the five pillars of our company. It’s about over communicating and sharing a very clear, simple vision.
How did you encourage a culture of success for a brand that is over 150 years old, with deep-rooted processes?
We took two key initiatives. One of them was a clear message to all employees: the only way the company would win and be successful is if it wasn’t about individuals, but about a 150-year legacy, and that the brand should always be put first. We told everyone that the question each of us must ask ourselves before any concern or doubt is what would be best for the brand. We realized that when egos are removed an unbelievable connection can be formed.
Second, we worked on communication. We didn’t just communicate through webcasts, but we made our love for digital into a fun source of sharing: we would create emotive and funny videos with British music in order to share global highlights and achievements. We made videos for everything we did, and first shared within teams and then with our families, so groups would feel proud of what they were doing. This really helped us form a solid culture with great people whose impact transcended the company.
What has been the Burberry secret to growing social media presence?
We’ve been very focused on growing social media almost since the beginning, and it was one of the pillars of company strategy. Four or five years ago we didn’t have the resources or money to invest, but we realized that social media was a great marketing tool right when they were starting to really take off. Therefore, our biggest focus was on being creative and compelling, and that’s how we got started on Facebook.
On the other hand, we realized that people wanted a personal connection with the brand. So I said “Christopher, you become the face of Facebook, the face of the brand.” At the end of the day it’s the personal engagement with the public that makes the content so compelling.
Could you tell us about the strategy you developed to take back the brand and buy back Burberry franchises?
The strategy was again, very simple. We decided that there is only one share price, only one brand Burberry, and there needs to be one pure digital vision to be transmitted all over the world simultaneously. Therefore it was necessary to recuperate control of our operations in all markets. From there we acted: we travelled the world with an amazing team of business developing executives as well as legal team to study each agreement. At the same time, we were building an internal infrastructure where we could manage everything from London. We closed around 15 licenses, but have taken back at least a dozen franchise agreements by turning them into joint ventures or acquiring them completely.
Today our landing page changes to show the 500 points of sale around the world, every ad in the magazine changes so any customer anywhere around the world see the exact same thing.
What were the crucial moments in your career and what did you learn from them?
How interesting to think about that! I worked seven years in Warnaco Group with Linda Wachner, a female CEO who is one of the smartest left brain analytical business operators I’ve ever worked with. Through that lens I strengthened one of my weaknesses. At Donna Karan it was pure creativity, and I learned to stimulate the right side of my brain. While at Liz Claiborne I worked for one of the greatest leaders today, Paul Sharon, President of the company. I always say that after sharpening the left and the right, and working under an incredible leader like Paul, when I got the call from Burberry I knew I was ready to operate both hemispheres. I believe this is why we’ve been able to achieve what we have achieved at Burberry.