Storytelling Key to Burberry’s China Strategy, Says Christopher Bailey

With a theatrical, multimedia event and an immersive new flagship, Burberry underscores the importance of storytelling in the all-important China market.

At a Burberry event in Shanghai | Source: Burberry

SHANGHAI, China — “I think [storytelling] is important globally, but in China it stops things from being [mere] product and starts to give it life. Everything has a story — your clothes, buildings, videos, music. I think its important people go along with this journey otherwise it becomes a faceless product,” Burberry’s chief creative officer and incoming chief executive officer Christopher Bailey told BoF, following a multimedia, Broadway-like show — billed as an “immersive, theatrical journey through the Burberry world of music, heritage, product and innovation” — that the British megabrand staged on Thursday in Shanghai at one of the city’s shipyards.

On a theatre-style set dominated by a façade of London’s iconic terrace houses, flanked by digital images of iconic landmarks in Shanghai and London, models danced their way through several musical numbers wearing Burberry trench coats, accessorised with umbrellas (in one scene they took refuge from the rain, while holograms of falling raindrops were projected onto a model’s coat). Live musical performances from George Ezra and Ed Harcourt added to the experience, which culminated in a restaging of the brands autumn/winter 2014 show, featuring a live performance by Paloma Faith. For the finale, Cara Delevigne flew over the audience like a modern-day Mary Poppins holding a Burberry umbrella.

One segment featured projections of Burberry’s cosmetics line. Beauty is one of the region’s “key growth drivers,” according to Pascal Perrier, Burberry’s CEO of Asia Pacific. “Of course we expect the event to have some impact on driving sales, but most importantly it’s about how it affects our brand positioning, it’s about how to engage with the customer,” he said.

“It’s all about touching people emotionally,” added Bailey. “Tonight language doesn’t matter — no matter where you are from, when you do something properly, people respond to that. It always surprises me how many people discover Burberry through our music projects for example. It’s important to keep innovating with your product and keep telling different stories with it. History and heritage is important to have as a foundation, but you have to build on top of that to keep it moving forward. Technology helps us do that.”

Thursday’s event was just one piece of the company’s plan to embed storytelling at the heart of its China strategy. Indeed, Bailey has previously called Burberry “as much a media-content company as we are a design company.” And since the brand regained control of its China business in late 2010, paying £70 million to buy out its franchisee, Kwok Hang Holdings of Hong Kong, Burberry has leveraged an array of touchpoints to connect with Chinese consumers and tell its brand story.

In 2011, it staged its first major event in the country, in the capital city of Beijing, featuring a theatrical fashion show that blurred the lines between the virtual and physical worlds and included sophisticated holograms and a performance by British brand Keane. Burberry has also engaged Chinese consumers with content experiences via its website and on various Chinese social media platforms such as Kaixin001, Douban, Youku and Weibo. In February, Burberry announced a partnership with WeChat. And for the Shanghai event, the company allowed users of the mobile messaging service to unlock interactive content experiences before and after the show.

Immersive new stores are also set to play a vital role in the strategy. Last week, Burberry unveiled a new high-tech flagship (one of five planned for China) at the Kerry Centre in Shanghai. Set over three floors, the new space — part event space, part entertainment hub, part store — is a virtual replica of the company’s content-infused global flagship on London’s Regent Street, which opened in September of 2012 and was said to be a “test hub and template” for future stores.

“It’s about fashion, music, dance, technology and innovation,” added Bailey. “It’s about inspiring people and making them have an experience, tonight and everyday.”

Disclosure: Divia Harilela travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Burberry.