Focus, Technology and Personalization: A Master Class in Branding from Apple’s Angela Ahrendts

Angela Ahrendts was recognized as a branding and marketing powerhouse well before Apple tapped her as their senior vice president of retail and online sales. Her eight-year track record at Burberry is very nearly legendary — and with good reason. When Ahrendts came to Burberry in 2006, growth at the venerable company had nearly come to a standstill, but within just a few years, she had re-established the brand as a force to be reckoned with in the luxury market. Through a combination of savvy use of technology and some hard-nosed business moves, she rebuilt the Burberry label brick-by-brick, and by the time she left for Apple, had nearly tripled the company’s annual revenue. And while your company’s marketing budget and resources surely are a drop in the bucket compared to Apple’s or Burberry’s, that doesn’t mean we can’t take a page from her syllabus and learn to how to emulate her innovative approach to branding building. So why don’t we all turn our attention to Professor Ahrendts, and let her teach us how to embrace the principles and practices that brought her phenomenal success at Burberry and got Apple’s attention.

Focus, focus, focus

When Ahrendts became CEO of Burberry, she inherited a brand in turmoil. The venerable 150-year old name was no longer synonymous with luxury; instead it had become the label of choice for British hooligans — so much, in fact, that some pubs refused to allow patrons inside if they were wearing Burberry. Outside the UK, the situation was even worse. Burberry had forged licensing agreements with more than a dozen international companies, and those companies were creating their own inferior products, then stamping them with the Burberry label. While Burberry was foundering, the luxury market as a whole was growing. Ahrendts found herself competing against well-established brands in a competitive market where her company had lost all advantage. Her response? Focus.

The brand

She began by finding what she refers to in interviews as her “white space” — the niche in the market that only Burberry could fill. And she found Burberry had two things that made it completely unique: it was British, and it had a history that spanned 150 years back to a single overcoat. These two features have been the touchstones guiding Burberry ever since in every piece of marketing, every fashion show and every story the brand has told — British models on the runway, British music on the website and in stores, and those classic trenchcoats always on prominent display.

The market

With a clear focus for the brand established, Ahrendts moved into market research to find the white space among consumers. Research told her something interesting – something that competing brands had either completely missed or ignored. The demographic group spending the most money on luxury consumer goods, especially in emerging markets, was the Millennial generation. So she landed upon the concept of “democratic luxury” as a way to bring the Burberry brand to a younger generation, avoiding the stuffy image many luxury brands promoted and making Burberry young, exciting and friendly.

The vision

Her final area of concern was all those licenses that were diluting the brand. Burberry bought back the licenses and established tight control over every single item that carried the Burberry label, from products to marketing campaigns. The new rule was simple: anything visible to the consumer passed through the hands of Chief Creative Officer Chris Bailey, the keeper of Burberry’s brand vision.

Digital first

trench Ahrendts has said that she views digital technology as a force for driving change rather than a marketing tool – a philosophy that is front and center in all of Burberry’s online outreach efforts. Take, for example, the Art of the Trench and the Burberry Kisses campaigns. Neither is designed as a direct-sell campaign but rather as a way to connect with, engage with and delight consumers. Then there’s Acoustic Burberry — a showcase of up-and-coming British musicians featured online and in Burberry stores. acoustic This integration of online and physical worlds is another of Ahrendts’ trademarks, and it’s embodied in Burberry’s flagship store, opened under her direction in 2012. Her stated goal was to make walking through a store exactly like browsing the Burberry website, and that goal is more than met. The store leverages cutting-edge technology to create a truly unique experience for customers. One great example is the use of chips embedded into selected products to activate interactive screens showcasing the story behind each item. Even runway shows blur the line between online and physical reality. Burberry now live-streams their fashion shows and allows online viewers to purchase items they see on the runway — well before they’re actually available in stores. It’s this seamless integration of worlds that has made the Burberry brand unique among its peers.

And always personal

Angela Ahrendts has also pioneered the use of technology to truly personalize the Burberry brand experience. In the stores, associates carry iPads with access to an international database of customers that provide purchase histories and personal preferences in order to allow them to provide their clients with a higher level of service. And online, customers are given the opportunity to customize items with nameplates and personalized technology. Orders placed online are even confirmed by a personal call from a Burberry rep.

Your takeaway

Angela Ahrendts has established herself as a branding genius — and Apple stands to benefit immeasurably under her guidance. Take her philosophy as an example, and reap some of the same benefits in your own market and on your own scale: Keep a clear focus on your brand story. Maintain control over your brand. Find your audience and learn to speak their language, which Ahrendts would say is digital. And discover ways to differentiate your product through presentation and personal service.