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Checks and chavs

Updated Thursday, 20th October 2005

Burberry's adoption by a demonised segment of the working class proved troubling for the brand.

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What do chavs, Danniella Westbrook and ferrets have in common? All have a penchant for wearing the distinctive beige Burberry-style check! This is bad news for Burberry, which had an altogether more upmarket consumer in mind for its prestigious fashions. All this at a time when the business had been enjoying a resurgence in its fortunes, having successfully repositioned itself away from the staid and middle-aged image of the past. To make matters worse, the market is flooded with fake merchandise and Kate Moss, the ‘face’ of Burberry, whose association with the brand has been linked to its renaissance, is facing drug-taking allegations.

Burberry is right to be concerned, having invested heavily in creating a brand image which closely fits the aspirations of consumers it wishes to attract. The brand, and how consumers perceive it, are among a business's most valuable assets. When the brand is damaged, its value and sales potential are reduced. The repercussions for the bottom line can be alarming.

At the heart of Burberry’s anxieties are the consumers it wants to attract and those that it does not. The enthusiastic adoption of the Burberry cap by chavs was not part of the plan. These young adults with lower class roots and a reputation for hooliganism favour flashy ‘bling’ jewellery, sportsgear and (fake) designer clothes. They listen to rap, hip-hop and dance music and congregate around fast-food outlets and shopping malls; a far cry from the style-conscious, high-brow target consumers of Burberry’s choice. Worries about the reaction of core customers to the brand’s chav connections and about consequent damage to its iconic status, are well-founded.

Advertising guru David Ogilvy, a major force in brand thinking, surmised that consumers buy products with a particular personality or brand image. The closer the connection between the brand and those it targets, the better. The word brand derives from the ancient Norse word ‘brandr’, being associated with the idea of branding (or burning) animals - probably not ferrets - for identification purposes. Current definitions suggest that a brand is made up of a name, term, design, symbol or other features that distinguish one seller’s goods from those of others.

A brand’s success is determined by consumers: an eclectic bunch with different needs, characteristics and friendship groups, who live their lives and spend their time in a myriad of ways. Their diverse shopping behaviour affects how they respond to and perceive the brands on offer in the high street and elsewhere. The brand and the consumers’ image of it are valuable business assets. The value of a strong brand doesn’t generally appear on a company’s balance sheet and may be difficult to measure exactly. Yet companies invest heavily in developing brand images which appeal to, and fit well with, their targets. The value they achieve is in the desirability of the brand and in the competitive advantage this provides.

Branding experts argue that effective branding strategy improves the chances of business success. In his book on brand leadership, David Aaker extols the virtue of brand leadership, which he sees as central in creating strong brands. The asset value associated with the brands which emerge has been called brand equity, described by Kevin Keller as the ‘marketing effects uniquely attributable to that brand’.

Aaker views brand equity as comprising four dimensions: awareness of the brand, its perceived quality, the loyalty of its customer base, and what he calls brand associations. Herein is the problem. Brand associations include anything and everything which links consumers to the brand. This might be the personality attributed to the brand, the situations in which it is used, and even imagery connected with its users. Brand owners like Burberry work hard to develop brand associations which fit closely with the image they wish to create. Associations of Burberry with chavs, Danniella Westbrook and ferrets are definitely not among those sought by the company.

Whatever businesses do to build their brands, it is consumers who determine how the brand is perceived. Consumer perceptions are central to a brand’s success or failure. It’s the consumer who decides on the brand’s image, whether that image fits their personal self-image, and if they will patronise the brand. External factors can shift this brand image and lead to consumers changing their preferences. Nestlé suffered as a result of marketing its infant formula in developing countries. British Airways was recently damaged by the impact of an industrial dispute at the company's in-flight catering supplier. This doesn’t mean that large scale changes in perceptions are achieved quickly or for no reason. Consumer views of the best established brand icons tend to be resilient. The image of Porsche as an exclusive brand dripping with heritage, the luxurious associations of Chanel, and the high-fashion status of Prada have all stood the test of time. For these brands at least, the deeply entrenched views of consumers are hard to change.

So has Burberry been permanently tarnished by the chavs, by undesirable furry mammals and by the attentions of Ms. Westbrook? The company denies that a short-term blip in UK sales growth can be attributed to these factors. Chavs, they say, are old news, and the UK anyway accounts for less than ten percent of total Burberry sales. The hope is that the company’s long-term brand building efforts will be enough to carry it through these current difficulties. Ultimately, this will be a test of Burberry’s brand strength and it is consumers who will decide.

Further reading

  • Marketing: Concepts and Strategies (5th edition) by S Dibb, L Simkin, W Pride and O C Ferrell, published by Houghton Mifflin
  • Brand Leadership by D Aaker and E Joachimsthaler, published by The Free Press
  • Building, Measuring and Managing Brand Equity (2nd edition) by K L Keller, published by Pearson Education Inc
 

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