Guest Opinion: Walpole CEO Helen Brocklebank reveals how to build customer loyalty in the rising British luxury market

| April 17, 2018 | By

Helen Brocklebank, CEO of Walpole, the trade body that helps promote, protect and develop the UK’s finest luxury brands worldwide, discusses how the likes of Burberry have been able to successfully transform themselves into “global superstars”, and identifies how British luxury brands can build and sustain customer loyalty through strong storytelling, creative myth-making and going beyond ‘Brand Britannia’.

Guest Opinion: Walpole CEO Helen Brocklebank reveals how to build customer loyalty in the rising British luxury market

There’s been a remarkable transformation in the way that top end labels engage with the high-end consumer and build customer loyalty – and the UK has emerged as one of the leaders of this sector.

British luxury really took off in 2001 when Christopher Bailey became head designer at Burberry.

While Burberry is among the oldest of the UK’s heritage brands, before 2001 it was losing its cachet and struggling to keep up with the changing pace of fashion. But with the the help of Bailey’s unique vision, Burberry was quickly transformed from an ailing fashion label into a multibillion-pound global superstar.

From this point the UK’s luxury sector really took momentum and it hasn’t stopped since, with Burberry setting the benchmark for other British brands.

Apart from Bailey’s talent, there were other big factors that contributed to Burberry’s success – which can be emulated by other brands:


One of the secrets to success in the luxury business is to have good chemistry between the creative director and CEO. They need to work closely together and have a good rapport and vision for the company. If a luxury brand can get that chemistry right – like Burberry did – then it has real potential for business growth.

If the spark and energy isn’t there between the creative and the business partner, then the brand won’t create anything meaningful for the customer.  This relationship is the engine of the business.

Seamless storytelling

Second, it’s the storytelling and myth-making around brands that the customer buys into – and with luxury it has a lot to do with heritage.

Burberry had been around for 100 years – but until Rosemary Bravo came on-board as CEO, and with Bailey as its new designer, things hadn’t really changed.

This dynamic duo understood the challenges faced by a luxury label: combining the importance of heritage and consistency of identity with the need to make the brand’s story new and interesting.

Managing supply and demand

95% of all marketing for luxury brands is geared towards people who can’t afford to buy it – this helps to create this allure.

Luxury labels need to give the impression of scarcity – that they are special and unique to the people who can never afford the product. Anyone who buys a luxury item should feel special and singled out for being somebody of distinction.

Burberry’s hiccup came 17 years ago when the brand had become too ubiquitous – and was adopted by people who were distant from the brand.

The brand was able to bring back its cachet by limiting the availability of its clothes in different retail shops and reducing the amount of stock available with its iconic check.

It also opened impressive flagship stores to enhance the consumer experience and launched Burberry Prorsum – the high-end Burberry label.

The above formula worked and Burberry became cool and desirable enough to re-attract customer loyalty, as well as the base it needed to turn the brand into a global billion-dollar company.

Burberry is still going strong because it understands what consumers want from luxury fashion: something that makes them feel distinctive, while also belonging to a discreet and intimate community. This not only racks up sales but also fosters what every business wants:

Customer loyalty

The idea of creating customer loyalty is something that luxury businesses have played out over a long period of time. Building an intimate knowledge of the customer base has always been important – particularly at the top end. In this space, it’s traditionally been driven by intimate one-to-one relationship, but this has become more and more difficult to achieve as the target customer base has increased.

But this intimacy can be replicated through technology. Data about what an individual customer consumes can now be analysed to create a portrait of their tastes, as well as what drives their preferences. This data can then be used to create a one-to-one intimate experience for the target customer that truly feels personal, rather than automated.

Online luxury shopping portals like Net-a-Porter are doing a lot with machine learning, and in the not-too-distant future consumers can expect to engage with applications that can communicate back to them advice and bespoke recommendations about particular outfits, based on their existing and past shopping habits and behaviours.

This rich data also helps luxury brands understand what customers do when they experience their products, and helps create new products that are driven by the customers and not just by the vision of the creatives behind a luxury brand.

Take, for example, the luxury yacht company Sunseeker, which has traditionally designed its sailing boats with its own view of what makes yachts desirable.

The firm has now developed a unique, data-driven understanding of what their customers want, and its upcoming Sunseeker 52 yacht has been designed with the help of combined customer data and the creative instincts of the in-house designer.

The demand for this beautiful product is said to be immense – even though it won’t be available until 2020!

Luxury brands and the Millennial

Millennial shopping behaviour is driving a change in the whole luxury market. This generation likes things to feel authentic and to have purpose. Playfulness and experience is important as well as sustainability.  They want to buy luxury goods that feel good to them, and when the product can become a souvenir of a personal experience.

Charlotte Tilbury – one of the very first British colour beauty brands –typifies this new approach. You watch a make-up video in-store, learn a few tricks, get further advice form a make-up assistant who can personalise your desired look, and then at the point-of-sale you end up purchasing an entire basket of cosmetics.

The focus of this concept store is on the emotion and experience of the customer, as opposed to just the product. Customers should leave the store with a more elevated sense of themselves – a more wonderful and more special ‘you’ that is nurtured and cared for by a special brand.

Customer loyalty grows when people feel they belong to something – if they are emotionally engaged they will continue to stay close to a luxury label.

Going beyond ‘Brand Britannia’

We think of luxury in Britain as hundreds of years old – but 50% of its top end brands were created over the past 50 years.

Creating a sense of old world ‘Brand Britannia’ as it pertains to luxury is important. People like the idea of heritage and tradition. But that’s not enough to transform a label into a major global business.

The real rocket fuel requires a combination of beautiful products as well as a great personal and online experience that feels transformative to the customer.

When it comes down to it, you’ll find that luxury brands, like others, are about experience identity – not nationality.

Helen Brocklebank became CEO of Walpole in February 2017. She is a specialist in luxury media brands, building her career at Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. She also founded the highly successful, multi-platform brand extension ‘Bazaar At Work’ for Omega and created enduring content partnerships with iconic brands including Bentley’s sponsorship of Bazaar Art and Esquire’s Man at the Top Awards for Glenmorangie.

More information about Helen can be found here.