Brand vulnerabilities: the 'chavving' of Burberry

Burberry, the fashion label once beloved by the weekending country classes, has received a considerable degree of press attention over the past few months because of its dubious status as being currently one of the chosen brands of the newly identified 'chavs', writes Leo Rayman, planning partner at Zalpha.

Whether you think this association is fruitful or not depends entirely upon whether you believe a short-term sales spike is acquired at the cost of hard-won brand values. Since it became the pattern of the masses, sales of Burberry products have dramatically increased and the company's stock market value has risen to £2bn, providing a compelling argument for taking elite brands to a mass market.

More specifically, the brand has seen revenue increase from £427.8m in 2000/01 to £675.8m in 2003/04, with dividend per share increasing from 3p in 2002/3 to 4.5p in 2003/04, making it good news all round.

At the same time, concerns are being voiced that irrevocable damage is being done to the brand by the company it is currently keeping and that the inevitable cyclical nature of fashion paints a dark future in which, deserted by the masses and despised by the elite, sales fall and the brand is consigned to the vaults of yesteryear.

This raises important questions for other elite brands. Is it possible to appeal to both the elite and the mass market? How much control do brand owners actually have over their brand?

While such a dramatic increase in sales figures is undoubtedly attractive to Burberry, it is questionable whether the brand set out to court mass appeal. Press reports also show how it attempted to retain control by removing the peaked cap worn by football hooligans from its range.

Burberry shares a fate with other elite brands, such as Hackett and Aquascutum, who, in setting themselves up as being aspirational and high class, became the inevitable focus of the "bling" culture that defines itself by conspicuous consumption.

Brands act as a form of social currency and the donning of an elite brand sends a clear message that the wearer is affluent and part of a fashion cognoscenti. It is a double-edged sword in that, the more elite a brand becomes, the more it generates such appeal. The irony inherent in this kind of cycle is that the seeds of potential failure are generated by the fruits of its own success.

In worst-case scenarios, forgers move in and brands watch helplessly as the mass market adorns themselves with cheap knock-offs, meaning that the brand is being trashed while sales add no value at all to the balance sheet.

Elite brands can attempt to manage this process by establishing sub brands, but the process is fraught with danger in that, from a marketing communications perspective, it is not possible to undertake very different programmes of mass communications without one set of messages leaking across groups.

So what can elite brands do to protect their equity in such situations? Branding experts point to the need to proactively and aggressively manage communications and develop associations designed to protect and enhance the core values of the brand. They need to ensure that they do not actively participate in pursuing a short-term sales spike at the cost of longer term equity.

Brands need to maintain their price premiums and use the right extensions. A number of high ticket, high fashion brands are producing lower ticket affordable items, such as D&G's T-shirt range, or the BMW 1 Series, in an effort to keep the distinct purchasing groups apart from each other.

Brands also need to work hard to continually stay ahead of the market. For example, instead of sitting back and enjoying the mass sales of Filofaxes and then attempting to win back an audience that moved on to electronic devices, Filofax should have used the idea at the heart of their brand, which can be expressed as "helping you to stay organised", and extended this into brand development by launching their own electronic devices.

Burberry's biggest vulnerability is that its product is centred around a pattern that essentially does not change and is easily copied. One possible solution could see Burberry producing a new pattern every year, which would at least reassert its position as leader rather than victim.

Yet a quick glance at the company's financial reports also indicates an alternative escape route. The "chav" is a quintessentially British phenomena and, while Europe constitutes 51% of the brand's market, it appears that the company is clear that real growth is taking place overseas, including the US and the emerging markets, where "chavs" have no footholds. If "chavving" does indeed create a sales nosedive in the UK, there is the continuing comfort of escaping overseas.

Other elite brands will watch the fate of Burberry with interest, keen to see how the label weathers its current storm. Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learnt from its fate is one that few marketers dare speak aloud -- there really is such a thing as the wrong kind of customer.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.

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