A Focus on Digital Makes Burberry Relevant to a New Generation

While in Chicago for the Launch of the Brand's Redesigned Flagship, Burberry's Chief Creative Shared His Vision and the Secrets to his Success

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Burberry was established in 1856 as a company that supplied British explorers with coats and tents for polar expeditions. But it has moved far beyond its roots, reinventing itself as one of the most forward-thinking fashion marketers in the world.

Much of that credit goes to Christopher Bailey, Burberry's dapper chief creative officer. Mr. Bailey oversees nearly every aesthetic aspect of the company, from fashion lines to retail locations to marketing. "Anything anyone sees, smells, hears or touches," he told Ad Age during an interview at the newly redesigned Burberry flagship in Chicago, which reopened in November.

Integral to Mr. Bailey's strategy -- and what sets Burberry apart from other fashion houses -- is his dedication to digital and the seemingly effortless weaving of the medium into everything the brand does. "[Digital] is something that should never be an afterthought -- it should never be a checklist that is something to do," Mr. Bailey said. "Digital for me is not a project; digital is a way that we live. If you deal with it as a project, it will always be superficial."

Mr. Bailey pointed to efforts such as "Art of the Trench," which features consumers wearing the iconic trench coat, and "Burberry Acoustic," which features collaborations with British musicians, as examples of how Burberry branches out beyond traditional marketing. "It's not this hard sell," he said.

Burberry Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey
Burberry Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey

But as savvy as Mr. Bailey is in the marketing world, he has no formal marketing training -- his background is a creative one. After being raised in a working-class household in Yorkshire, England, he earned a degree from the Royal College of Art. He got his start with Donna Karan and then became a senior designer of women's wear at Gucci. He joined Burberry as creative director in 2001. "[Marketing is ] something that I feel is very instinctive," he said. "I like to dream, and I think that 's all marketing is . I don't like traditional marketing, necessarily. We've moved on quite a lot, and I think none of us like to feel marketed to."

Mr. Bailey, who was dressed head-to-toe in Burberry, refers to the fashion empire as an "old-young company. ... It's 156 years old, but it's a very young team, so digital is just part of our lives. ... It just felt counterintuitive to not do digital." Important in Mr. Bailey's strategy is the melding of the digital and physical worlds. "[Digital] is something we use to bridge all our different worlds," he said.

That dedication to digital has helped Burberry become a truly global brand with a consistent message communicated around the world. "When you're dealing with digital technology, that doesn't have boundaries. And I think the world shouldn't necessarily have boundaries. The way we approach it is having our consistent point of view," Mr. Bailey said. "It's not only the physical countries you can talk about now. ... Those boundaries have become almost irrelevant."

Burberry only started getting attention for its digital efforts in the past few years. In 2009, it was one of the first fashion houses to live-stream a runway show. It's also been known to tweet images of a new collection before a show, effectively giving its Twitter followers a glance at the line before front-row celebrities and high-powered editors get one. The commitment to social media has altered the company, particularly its production schedule. Burberry is one of the only brands that allows consumers to buy clothes immediately after models walk down the runway in them.

Still, at the same time Burberry is becoming an interesting digital player, it has become even more relevant and exciting as a fashion player. Burberry had come to be seen as a stodgy, tired brand that put its signature checkered print on far too many items. But the brand has seen a turnaround in perception and has been appealing to a wider and younger audience.

"The strategy has always been [to] have a point of view, be true to ourselves and be innovative. We've always said we're not really following in anyone else's tracks," Mr. Bailey said.

Mr. Bailey's creative background also comes into play. It's something he says has allowed "flexibility, an open mind. It means that I try to inspire the teams to dream and stay open-minded and just keep moving forward. Because I think sometimes we can become formulaic, and I think the world is moving very fast and people can get lazy and complacent. And I can't bear complacency. ... I like to move things on."

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