Brand hijack

posted 17 December 2004

In the last two days I have seen two people on the tube wearing obvious Burberry products.

  • Exhibit A was about 15, wearing a diamond earring, dark denim jeans with back pockets in the Burberry pattern, a baseball cap, and a vinyl biker jacket with a Burberry scarf trailing prominently down the back, displayed to maximum effect.
  • Exhibit B was in his 60s, accompanied by his wife, wearing a full length khaki trench coat with a worn-looking Burberry scarf tucked neatly down the front.
The phenomenon of the hijacking of an old and respected brand like Burberry by a rampant wave of undiscriminating consumerism like the chav subculture is absolutely fascinating. Here is a brand of distinctly unattractive clothing, being enthusiastically adopted by a group who the brand are not just failing to court, but with whom they are in fact horrified to be associated.

And with good reason, too: Burberry has seen a 40% drop in sales in the UK (its overseas sales are expanding) as its poisonous association with chavs becomes more and more widely shared. Chavs buy Burberry, but not nearly as much of it as posh people used to: like their Nikes and their bling, much of the Burberry chavs are buying is fake.

Trying to find a parallel to this situation, I considered other brands that had been widely associated with chavs: Nike are not complaining that it ships its products to Essex by the megatonne. Gucci didn't go downmarket when every chav in the world started buying fake gucci. So what's gone wrong for Burberry?

I have to think that part of the problem is that the Burberry pattern (its official name is "camel check") is just intrinsically ghastly. It survived until now solely through positive brand association (and even then it only appears on 10% of Burberry's range). With that positive association gone, it is now dying a predictable death. Nike was never really a premium brand -- it is expensive, but by no means upmarket -- and Gucci products are genuinely attractive. So they haven't seen a drop in sales, in the former because their market never changed, and in the latter because their market did not rely on branding alone.

A more interesting question is why chavs like it in the first place. After all, while rich people wear Burberry, famous people don't -- or not prominently. David Beckham, who with his wife is a good nominee for king and queen of the chavs, has never, as far as I have been able to determine, ever been spotted wearing the stuff. The only reason that comes to mind is that it is obvious branding: you don't need to spot the label to know a camel check cap is (or claims to be) Burberry, which is attractive when the only reason you're wearing the hideous thing is so people will believe you can afford to do so.

I have no deep conclusions to draw from this. I just think that chavs are horrifying, Burberry is ugly, and the death of one by the other could only be made sweeter if it also killed itself in the process.

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