How Ubiquity Became a Liability for Burberry

It’s the early 2000s. And, on the streets of London, it’s raining.

As is natural, people are bursting their umbrellas open. But as they do, a precarious view forms from above. All the umbrellas are lined with the same Burberry pattern.

While many brands would relish the chance to be ubiquitous, for a luxury label overexposure isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Founded by Thomas Burberry in 1856, the brand became a household name after mastering the art of water resistant coats. By the time World War I rolled around, the item had become so trusted by Britons that they were issued to officers, earning the name “trench coats”.

The coats would become an icon in their own right. Synonymous with arctic explorers, and famous aviators. After the war they transitioned from being an outdoor garment to a luxury item.

And in the 1920s, a beige, black, red, and white pattern would be added to the inside lining of the garment. It would become the brand’s emblem.

The coats continued to pop up in notable places, including on Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

But on an unassuming day at the Paris Burberry store, the underexposed pattern would take its first step to becoming an icon. The store’s manager was trying to liven up the display of trench coats when she decided to turn one of them inside out. It gave her the splash of color she needed. But also produced a sea of customers clamoring for more items baring the brand’s tartan.

In response to the demand, Burberry released an umbrella covered in it, which sold out quickly, and a cashmere scarf, which received a similar reception.

The 70s and 80s saw the rise of the “Sloane Ranger”. People Town & Country describe as not exactly aristocrats, but as people who “belonged to certain families had been educated at certain schools, had certain jobs, drove certain cars, had country houses decorated just so, and wore a uniform that made them easy to spot.”

That uniform consisted of items from Gucci, Hermes, and, of course, Burberry. But in tasteful, light-touch ways. “Quiet luxury is still luxury after all,” the publication notes.

Although the 70s and 80s brought a new demographic to these luxury brands, its clothes very much remained in the hands of the elite.

That was until the 90s.

The “Logo wave” of that era saw lower classes get their hands on clothing with luxury logos on them, with little regard for whether they were authentic or counterfeit. Gucci, Chanel, and Burberry logos were being loudly worn by lower income demographics, and swaths of tourists.

In some ways the company embraced the trend, bathing the cast of a Kate Moss led brand campaign from 2000 in clothes with the pattern.

And for a while the strategy was a success, with sales increasing in the UK and US.

But ubiquity came at a cost.

And in 2002, a tabloid photo of British soap opera actress Daniella Westbrook wearing head to toe Burberry tartan (even her child’s pram is lined with it) represented a watershed moment in the value the company was getting.

The rise of the “chav” – lower income lads, and football hooligans – bathing themselves in the brand’s emblem didn’t help. Burberry’s international sales skyrocketed, but their UK sales dwindled.

“If it rained in London in the early 2000s, a sea of Burberry umbrellas would envelope the street,” according to Sleek.

With its brand overexposed, in 2006, Angela Ahrendts became the company’s new CEO. And she, along with Christopher Bailey as its chief creative officer, decided to aggressively buy back licenses of its tartan pattern and become more restrictive of where it was used.

Restoring the pattern to being more of an embellishment on the inside of a garment, helped lift the brand’s revenue 27 percent in 2011.

And although the brand is dipping its toe back into its 90s “chav” past  as part of a streetwear collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy for fashion week in 2018, balance has now been restored on the rainy streets of London.

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