The Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design welcomed Angela Ahrendts, the CEO of British luxury brand Burberry, to campus for a question-and-answer forum May 2. Earlier in the day, CoMAD representatives awarded her the inaugural Westphal Award.
The discussion appealed to design and business students alike. Ahrendts, who became the CEO of Burberry in 2006, began by explaining that people are described as being either left- or right-brained with no happy medium. She emphasized the necessity to balance the creative and analytical aspects of the brain when running a company.
“I’m a merchant marketer,” Ahrendts said. “I’m right in the center.”
Ahrendts had this epiphany while attending Ball State University in Indiana, where she began as a design major. She soon realized that she was better suited for the business side of the fashion industry.
“I knew I loved the industry. I knew I loved magazines. I knew I loved to shop,” she said.
Ahrendts, who had been working at Liz Claiborne Inc. in New York City, said that she declined the position at Burberry three times before accepting. The drive to break boundaries as one of the few female CEOs in the world and the education her children would receive in the United Kingdom are what ultimately motivated Ahrendts to take on the position.
What makes Burberry, founded in 1856, one of the leading luxury brands in the world is Ahrendts’ drive to create a foundation based on trust while uniting Burberry’s customers and associates alike into a holistic unit.
“When you have a foundation of trust, you don’t have to worry about anything else,” Ahrendts said.
Ahrendts said that the question that steers her executive decisions is: “How can we create the world’s greatest, most modern brand?”
Ahrendts’ reliance on trust and her sharp marketing mind have led Burberry to become the fourth-fastest growing company in the world behind Apple Inc., Google and Amazon in 2011. In 2010 and 2011, Fast Company magazine named Burberry the 13th-most innovative company in the world.
Ahrendts noted that society, especially young people, has become increasingly dependent on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which have become necessities to companies. Ahrendts has made it a priority to appeal to this technological acquisition with the help of Burberry’s Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey and Chief Information Officer John Douglas. Together, the power team has created an informative and convenient digital world, binding the vision with today’s technology.
According to Ahrendts, Bailey is in charge of promoting Burberry’s image. He is in charge of designing the Burberry collection, line, advertising and store designs. She jokingly added that she has nicknamed him “the brand czar” because he is the visionary of the company.
Ahrendts explained that Burberry’s Strategic Innovation Council comes up with the dream, and the Strategic Executive Council turns the dream into reality.
Burberry’s image revolves around a British persona. According to Ahrendts, the company only hires British models, for example actress Emma Watson. Additionally, Burberry only reaches out to unsigned British bands for the company’s online music collection, Burberry Acoustics.
“[Bailey] had a very British image of what we could do with Burberry,” Ahrendts said.
Ahrendts also promoted Burberry’s philanthropic image. In addition to helping make Burberry a green company, she founded Burberry Foundation in 2008, which promotes creativity in youth. According to Burberry’s website, the foundation collects donations from employees and customers and is registered in England and Wales.
According to Ahrendts, Burberry Foundation gives “over $5 million a year, and over 1,000 hours of employee volunteer time … to give [youth] confidence as they go out into the workforce.”
In addition to Burberry Acoustics and the Burberry Foundation, Burberry’s website reflects Ahrendts’ goal to transform Burberry into a social enterprise. The website features the interactive Art of the Trench feature, which is connected to Burberry’s Facebook page. Customers can take photographs of themselves wearing a Burberry trench coat and upload them to the page. This nonprofit platform is Ahrendts’ way of connecting customers worldwide.
“Those are the young, conventional relationships we have to form to get everything out there,” Ahrendts said.
Ahrendts is working hard to create a unique Burberry culture and is headed in the right direction as she unites customers and employees. A flagship store was recently launched in Taipei with a live video feed of the launch party on YouTube and Facebook.
“[My colleagues] all felt like they were there, and that’s how you create a great culture,” Ahrendts said.
It all started with a coat, which morphed into one of the most successful companies in the world, customers old and new, and approximately 9,000 employees.
“The stronger and better the business,” Ahrendts said, “the more we can give back.”
Judith E. Glaser, winner of Drexel’s 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award, moderated the forum. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications Inc. and the Creating WE Institute chair. The forum was free and open to the public and took place in Mitchell Auditorium in the Bossone Research Enterprise Center.