Burberry gets a digital makeover for millennials

The British brand known for trenchcoats and tartans targets the millennial generation.

CHICAGO — Angela Ahrendts may be CEO of Burberry, but one of her favorite accessories is an Apple iPhone5 that she's used to oversee a mobile makeover at the 150-year-old company best known for trenchcoats and tartan plaids.

Burberry has long stuck to its English roots, giving its look from time to time modern tweaks, but it's been Ahrendts and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey in the past few years who have pushed the brand's digital, and now mobile, boundaries.

"It's very easy to allow an iconic brand to remain true to its heritage and at the same time obsolete itself," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group. "The hard thing to do is keep the iconic brand relevant. This is about somebody at the helm deciding they're going to find a way to keep the brand relevant for the future."

Burberry has done that by making moves that it says attract a millennial consumer. That includes monthly updates at Burberry.com, where Ahrendts said more people visit every week than walk into all the brand's stores around the world combined.

The company has an internal social network called Burberry chat. And since Ahrendts started in 2006 she started hiring a team of "digital natives" with titles like mobile director and music director. The brand also has a strategic innovation council.

While some efforts were under way when she took the helm, Ahrendts says Burberry was "a manual spreadsheet organization" at the time.

"We just kept evolving the structure," she says. "We always said if we were going to target a millennial consumer then we had to do it in their mother tongue, which is digital."

Cohen says iconic luxury fashion brands have the story to attract consumers, but the challenge is finding the right means of communicating it in the digital world. "They have to turn the store into a story and the story into a site," Cohen said.

The Burberry website offers 10 times more online than what the company has in stores "because we say that is 'the world's store,'" Ahrendts says.

Mobile commerce gives customers instant access to products they aspire to own. "To me, the key is that even the luxury brands have to learn, have to evolve," Cohen says. "Without evolution the luxury brands will be overtaken by more progressive, up and coming luxury brands. Luxury has to worry about keeping their brand alive."

Burberry is interacting directly with consumers in the digital sphere, too, launching projects like artofthetrench.com. The website invites users to upload pictures of themselves wearing Burberry trenchcoats, which have been made by the label since World War I. The result is a collage from around the world.

Burberry.com also features Burberry Bespoke, which lets users customize their own trench, down to buttons and belts.

Ahrendts wants Burberry online and Burberry offline to be seamless for customers. But it's not without challenges in a digital world where fashion buyers can become overwhelmed with emails, tweets and other messages.

According to Ahrendts, the challenges are: "How do we keep the brand so cool and so pure and so relevant so it cuts through that clutter?" she says. "But by the same token how do we keep the marketing and the communication much more customized and personalized?"

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