This summer, Fast Company asked Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts about her company's greatest challenge. "The greatest challenge? I don't think it's just our challenge," said Ahrendts. "It's [the challenge] of every company, I think [for] every great leader—I think Tim Cook has the same challenge."
That her first thought was to compare Burberry's hurdles with that of Apple's is telling. Today, Apple named Ahrendts as the company's new senior vice president of retail. She'll be overseeing Apple's in-store and online consumer experience, and reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook. It's unclear how far along the hiring discussions were when our interviews with Ahrendts took place in late July and earlier this month, but it's evident that Ahrendts was either remarkably attuned to Cook's goals or presciently aligned with Apple's mission. "[The challenge] is getting communities and getting companies to truly keep pace with every single individual because this"—she waved her iPhone—"is enabling them," she said. "If you want to keep the next generation and if you want them to be united, you have to see this is how they live. You have to blow up all your existing policies—everything!—and rebuild them around this."
True to her word, during her tenure at Burberry Ahrendts made Apple a centerpiece of the retail experience, from the iPads that store associates carry to the digital initiatives she's empowered through apps like Instagram. In September, the company partnered with Apple to hold a runway show and film the entire event using the iPhone 5S, a collaboration which she touched on during Fast Company's Innovation by Design conference (seen in the videos below), which was held just two weeks ago.
Here, we've included more thoughts from Ahrendts on the future of retail, from our recent interviews, which give significant insight into what she may have planned for rejuvenating Apple, online and off.
Ahrendts's approach to retail:
When Ahrendts first came to Burberry, she was faced with a unique challenge: How do you breathe new life into a 158-year-old brand without disrupting its underlying DNA? She wanted the customer experience to be seamless, consistent, and brand-centric. The emphasis, Ahrendts says, is on creating an inviting atmosphere free of the pain points common of traditional retailers:
"Everything we’ve done is counterintuitive to traditional selling organizations, with their traditional training. My dad used to always say that he could teach anything but he couldn’t teach how to feel. That’s the hardest part when you have 11,000 people: How do you teach them to feel how we feel? When I first started, we had no training programs—none of that. We had to put in world-class sales and service training programs. The thing is, I don’t want to be sold to when I walk into a store. I want to be welcomed. The job is to be a brilliant brand ambassador. Everybody is welcome. Don’t be judgmental whatsoever. Look them in the eyes. Welcome them. ‘How are you?’ Don’t sell! NO! Because that is a turnoff. So how do you hire all these amazing people and put them in a world-class retail setting and then say, ‘But you’re not allowed to sell’?! How do you put this whole digital team together and say, ‘But we are not doing any direct marketing to sell to you!’? The digital guys look at you like you’re nuts. But no, no, no, no, no. What we have wanted to do is build an amazing brand experience and an amazing way that people can engage with the brand. Then it will naturally happen. And then I don’t care where they buy. I only care that they buy the brand."
In her talk at Fast Company's recent design conference, Ahrendts pointed to the company's flagship Regent Street store as being the benchmark for success. "If you haven't seen it, just tour it while you're in London," Ahrendts explained, "because I don't believe there is another store in the world [like it]…This is the future of retail." Get a glimpse of the store at 1:16 in the video below:
On the importance of integrating the digital and physical retail experience:
In 2012, Ahrendts shook up the traditional, often-siloed nature of Burberry's retail stores. No longer would a store manager in Detroit only focus on Detroit in-store sales, for example, nor was a digital sales manager there allowed to ignore sales at brick-and-mortar shops. The disparate elements needed to speak to each other.
"Traditionally, wholesale is wholesale. Digital people are incentivized to drive digital. And store managers are interested in the store. We blew that all up. I said, No, no, no, store manager in Detroit: You’re responsible for digital too. You’re telling me nobody in Detroit is shopping online? Wrong! Now London, for instance, every week has to report their online traffic and their offline traffic and what was their crossover. I hired a chief customer officer who came from Lloyds who built us a huge insights and analytics department. We put in traffic counters in all the stores, because I could get traffic online but I couldn’t get traffic offline and so I couldn’t get any crossover behaviors. We’ve got ten thousand iPads out there in the stores. And we’ve built this clienteling app. So if you buy in Hong Kong or if you went and bought online or even if you are just window-shopping and have stuff in your basket—we’ll know. Offline stores will be able to see all your behavior online. We are blurring the physical and digital, and it’s not just the retail experience. It is the service."
At Burberry, the digital experience extended beyond retail. In the interview below from our design conference, Ahrendts discusses how and why the company partnered with Apple for its recent runway show:
The significance of global branding:
When you walk into an Apple store, you know exactly where you are, whether it's in Berlin or Beijing, San Francisco or Sydney. The same could be said of Burberry, which boasts more than 450 stores, each with a unique but consistent language and design. They just feel like Burberry stores: the plaid apparel, the intimate yet open layout, the high-end experience. It's been a mission for Ahrendts to make the Burberry experience universally intuitive, at retail stores and online.
"You have to do what’s best for the brand. This is a global brand that plays in 80 countries. There has to be one brand attitude. We have a huge initiative in China because it does have the largest rising middle class. A hundred million who travel outside of the market. We know the 25 flagship markets that they’re going to go to and all the behaviors. It’s an important business driver. By the same token, we know that 70 percent of them are going to go onto Burberry.com before they travel, before they even walk into a store. So we feel that the most vital thing is whatever they see on that landing page, they also see in the windows. When they go into men’s, whatever they see on those hero shots, if you walked into a men’s store, you’d see those same looks on that mannequin at the same time. Why should the customer have to dig? Online, offline, it’s gotta be the same."
The importance of design-centric thinking:
For Ahrendts, design has played a crucial role in creating a narrative around the Burberry brand and product line. She calls it the "greatest uniter of people," a way to infuse the company with a sense of "empathy, compassion, and humility."
It's a notion she touched on in another recent interview at Fast Company's Innovation by Design conference. "Great design...you won't have a business today without great design," said Ahrendts, sounding ever more like an Apple veteran. "[Design and business] are so inexplicably linked—at all levels."
Interview conducted by Jeff Chu.
[Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File]