Digital Heritage Storytelling at Mulberry

Amanda Grace Sikarskie

Business Case
Source: Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases
DOI: 10.5040/9781474208789.038
Hit highlights
On Off

Abstract

The late 2010s have shown themselves to be years of cultural and financial uncertainty, with Brexit representing the tip of the iceberg in a sea of shifting political and economic alliances. Adding to this climate is the reality that the luxury market is becoming increasingly aspirational as housing prices soar and purchasing power stagnates, and that younger generations seem less interested in accruing possessions than even the Gen Xers before them. In this period of flux, luxury giants on both sides of the Atlantic—such as Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Halston Heritage, Mulberry, Saint Laurent, and Versace—must prioritize safeguarding their brand loyalty and recognition. To accomplish this, these and other luxury brands are increasingly turning to the cachet of their heritage, made accessible to a new generation of consumers through digital heritage storytelling on social sites like Instagram. Some brands have a much longer heritage upon which to draw than others, however. Whereas many luxury houses were founded in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, British luxury brand Mulberry was founded in the 1970s. To tell the story of its comparatively brief history, Mulberry inserts itself into the longer narrative of modern British history. This case study explores and evaluates the successes and failures of luxury brands’ utilization of social media channels as a platform for digital heritage storytelling.


Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this case, students should be able to:

  • Explain compelling brand storytelling grounded in heritage

  • Discuss how a brand story may be tied in with a larger narrative, such as a work of literature or art, or with a national story

  • Demonstrate how a brand story (and all the heritage implied therein) may be distilled into a few social media posts for digital heritage storytelling

  • Describe the role of hashtags in creating and perpetuating the heritage narrative online

Introduction

If there is one commandment in luxury marketing right now, it is “honor thy heritage” (Doupnik 2017). Rolex’s iconic slogan, “It doesn’t just tell time, it tells history,” speaks volumes to the importance of brand history and heritage in marketing luxury goods. This heritage is communicated to the consumer through storytelling, increasingly in 140 characters or less.

But what is a story? We may associate the word “story” with childhood fairy tales or some frivolous narrative, but stories are much broader than that. Quite simply, stories are how human beings logically structure narrative information. According to psychologist Susan Weinschenk, stories are such an effective communication strategy because they “allow us to break down events into smaller units so that we can better understand the information being communicated” (Weinschenk 2009: 116). In Storytelling: Branding in Practice (2005), Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu define storytelling as message, conflict, character, and plot. Founders, designers, models, muses, the consumer (or the consumer’s parents or grandparents), and even sometimes a whole nation, are characters in a brand’s story. A well-told brand story ultimately translates to brand loyalty, to the customer who comes back to the brand year after year because the brand and its heritage means something in their life. A dress is just a dress if the brand story fails to connect with the consumer. But if the brand story is told successfully and capture’s the consumer’s imagination, then a simple miniskirt is suddenly imbued with Twiggy and Swinging London.

Strong, mature brands carry with them memories and emotional baggage. Donatella Versace’s twentieth anniversary collection successfully told the story of the legacy of her brother, Gianni, and the brand that he built. Another compelling approach to brand storytelling is when a brand inserts its own cast of characters into very well-known stories, such as canonical works of literature. Gucci’s 2018 digital and print campaign featuring collaborations with painters both tells the story of Gucci and places Gucci within the larger narratives of the Old Testament and the story of Western art, as in the Gucci x Hieronymous Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights mash-up in which the Gucci snake becomes the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Alessandro Michele becomes Adam. These memories make up the events in the brand story. We may remember particular ad campaigns, collections, and iconic pieces, but it helps to jog our collective memory to be reminded of these in the context of a larger chronological narrative.

Business Problem

Mulberry was founded by British mother-son team Joan and Roger Saul in Somerset in 1971 (Encyclopedia of Fashion n.d.). Unlike older British brands such as Burberry (founded in 1856), which began as an outdoor outfitter and later transitioned to the luxury sector, from the beginning, Mulberry styled itself as a luxury British lifestyle brand focusing on leather goods, along with women’s and men’s fashion. In some ways, this makes Mulberry’s heritage storytelling much more straightforward, as there is no sporting tradition or lineage to consider. Rather, the story of Mulberry simply needs to be the story of the modern British woman. But how to tell that story on social media?

The brand story as the national story

National brands such as Mulberry carry not only memories of their products, advertisements, and the ways in which we and our families used them, but also, by proxy, memories of daily life growing up in a particular country. Ralph Lauren is as American as apple pie whereas Mulberry is as British as sticky toffee pudding. Featuring a brand as a main character in a national story builds on existing brand loyalty and reinforces perceptions of trust and quality associated with the brand. If one trusts and values Britain and takes pride in being British, and Mulberry is basically analogous to Britishness in its brand story, then one may reliably trust, value, and take pride in Mulberry.

Just how does a brand translate such a long and lofty narrative as the national story of Britain into an Instagram post? And why should it even try? Image-driven Instagram is such a compelling platform because, from a neurological perspective, “our brains are built to process pictures, and we think in pictures, so presenting information as pictures is the most efficient way to present information to people” (Weinschenk 2009: 113). We organize complex sets of event-based information into textual stories, but we tend to think in images. I call this the “instaproblem,” the task of making visible all of a brand’s years of rich and varied history in a single, carefully chosen image and accompanying hashtags. Iconic British symbols such as drinking tea, Queen Anne chairs with cabriole legs, slightly over-sized floral frocks, and large handbags are as British as Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet), and all of these can be used as a kind of visual shorthand for Britishness.

As Angela McRobbie explains in British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry?, “It does not make sense to tell the story of British fashion design by leaping from people such as Hardy Amies to Mary Quant to Ossie Clark, to the designers of the early 1980s, such as Bodymap, because these names alone tell us very little about fashion as a participative practice, a form of popular culture” (1998: 8). No brand (especially a young one) can construct a purely self-referential narrative. Nor can they promote a brand narrative that focuses on the influences and legacies of other designers to the exclusion of the consumer. Brand stories are a form of popular culture, and the people who shopped the brand or even just coveted it in fashion magazines, must be main characters in that story. In the case of Mulberry, this means the generations of British women of the 1970s and after, and the models featured in digital heritage storytelling for the brand must both look elegant and elevate the product while simultaneously standing in, by proxy, for the British everywoman. Locations used to perpetuate the brand narrative must also strike this balance between history and the present, high culture and popular culture. Perhaps no figure did this better than the late Princess Diana, who has been a muse for Mulberry’s creative director Johnny Coca (Madsen 2017).

Approaches to the “instaproblem”: Mulberry on Instagram

In a February 16, 2018, Instagram post, legendary fashion critic Suzy Menkes took note of Mulberry’s emphasis on heritage, posting: “Spencer House is a super-glam location for Mulberry whose See Now Buy Now collection will be on offer all weekend” (Menkes 2018). Making their SS18 collection instantly shoppable, rather than having consumers wait weeks or months after the runway show until the clothes are actually available in stores, is a sign that Mulberry is adapting to and embracing the “Instagramification” of the fashion business. While the “See Now Buy Now” business model looks to the future, Mulberry’s choice of venue for the unveiling of their SS18 collection was a nod to the past. Spencer House is an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion in St. James’, London, and is owned by Earl Spencer, younger brother of Princess Diana. Spencer House positively oozes British history, both early modern and contemporary, making it a perfect site for Mulberry to continue to style itself as a British heritage label.

Many of Mulberry’s designs are themselves inspired by heritage pieces, and this is reflected in their digital heritage storytelling online. A February 27, 2018, Instagram post noted: “Shine on: A few special styles in our SS’18 collection have been embellished with a scattering of jewels—their placement recalls loose gemstones at the bottom of an heirloom jewellery box” (Mulberry 2018). And a February 23, 2018, Instagram post about the new “Rider’s Lock” hardware icon hashtagged #BeyondHeritage explained that the Rider’s Lock is “Inspired by yesterday, designed for tomorrow” (Mulberry 2018c). Understandably, Mulberry frequently references their heritage in social posts. An Instagram post from February 18, 2018, reads: “The Marloes Satchel: New styles emerge with iconic signatures—the Rider’s Lock, first introduced on the Amberley, now features on our #MulberryMarloes, in Cobalt Blue” (Mulberry 2018b). The post is also hashtagged #SS18, #LWF (London Fashion Week), #MulberryEngland, and significantly, #BeyondHeritage. The idea of going beyond heritage suggests a brand that is future-oriented while still mindful of its history, an important consideration for a brand that was only founded in the 1970s.

#BeyondHeritage is an effective hashtag for Mulberry’s brand story, and the importance of hashtags in digital heritage storytelling cannot be overstated. Gucci, for example, used #utopianfantasy for the campaign discussed in the introduction above. Consider all that the phrase “utopian fantasy” conveys about the Gucci brand story. Tennis player Roger Federer, who has his own RF logo brand of athletic apparel, used the hashtag #RF20 after he won his record twentieth Grand Slam tournament at the Australian Open in 2018. His brand relies on communicating his unique—and still evolving—place in tennis history. Hashtags effectively function as the shorthand version of the brand story. Be purposeful and consistent in choosing hashtags and use them both online and in print.

Business Questions

Considering the case of Mulberry:

  1. What are some other notably British brands? How does Mulberry’s brand story compare to theirs?

  2. Who are the characters in Mulberry’s story?

  3. What is the message, conflict, and plot of Mulberry’s story?

  4. How could the brand’s story be tied in with a larger story—from literature, art, or religion, or with a national story? Brainstorm specific events in recent British history or British popular culture that could logically tie in with Mulberry products.

  5. How can we you solve the “instaproblem” of how this story can then be distilled into a single image or set of images suitable for posting on social media?

  6. How would you hashtag the brand’s story? Propose another compelling hashtag other than #BeyondHeritage.

Teaching Notes

Before introducing Mulberry, instructors may wish to give some historical background on Britain in the 1970s, the decade in which Mulberry was founded. The 1970s were a time of international cooperation and change in Europe. Britain joined the European Community (the predecessor of the European Union) in 1973, the same year that Mulberry opened its first factory in Somerset. Now, with Brexit looming and Britain poised to drift apart from Europe, globalist, pro-European sentiment is high with British youth and among its fashion community.

As a result of this globalist sentiment in British fashion, it may be that this proves a particularly challenging moment in which to tell the story of such a thoroughly national brand as Mulberry. In a discussion of the role of Britishness in fashion today, Angela McRobbie noted:

In a world of global culture, it might seem strangely old-fashioned, indeed redundant, to document a local form of cultural activity and to dwell on its apparently national characteristics … The question of the Britishness of these phenomena is more intractable. Are these various forms of cultural production (notably fashion, music, and magazines) a kind of last ditch attempt at cultural imperialism, with Britfrocks following Britpop in the attempt to rule the waves, as they might put it in the tabloid press? (1998: 10)

In the classroom, this case can be used to generate discussion, as the basis of an in-class/exam essay, or as a jumping off point for individual or group projects in which students use text and/or visual media to narrate a brand story for Mulberry (or another luxury brand).

As homework to be completed prior to the lesson, instructors could have students look at the ten most recent Instagram posts made by the official account of a luxury brand of their choosing and think about how heritage figures in the brand’s digital storytelling.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Carr G., and Lisa Hopkins Newell. 2014. Guide to Fashion Entrepreneurship: The Plan, The Product, The Process . New York : Fairchild.

Find in Library Doupnik Elizabeth. 2017. ““British Brands Bank on Heritage for Future Growth” .” WWD , October 5.

Encyclopedia of Fashion . "Mulberry Company—Fashion Designer Encyclopedia" Accessed April 7, 2018. https://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Mu-Pi/Mulberry-Company.html

Find in Library Fog Klaus, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu. 2005. “Branding Through Storytelling .” In Klaus Fog , Christian Budtz , and Baris Yakaboylu, eds. , Storytelling: Branding in Practice , 12–25. Berlin : Springer .

Find in Library Hoffmann Jonas and Ivan Coste-Manière , eds. 2012. Luxury Strategy in Action . New York : Palgrave MacMillan.

Madsen Suzanne. 2017. “Mulberry Gets Inspired by Britain, Bowie, and Princess Di.” Dazed, February 22. Accessed April 7, 2018. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/34841/1/mulberry-get-inspired-by-britain-bowie-and-princess-diana-aw17-sloane .

Find in Library McRobbie Angela. 1998. British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? London : Routledge.

Menkes Suzy. 2018. “Spencer House is a Super-Glam Location for Mulberry Whose See Now Buy Now Collection Will Be on Offer All Weekend,” Instagram, February 16. Accessed February 28, 2018, https://www.instagram.com/p/BfQ_Odsnwn5/?saved-by=sikarska .

Mulberry. 2018a. “Shine On,” Instagram, February 27. Accessed February 28, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BftdB9YlURc/?saved-by=sikarska .

Mulberry. 2018b. “The Marloes Satchel,” Instagram, February 18. Accessed February 28, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BfWP0n2Fouv/?saved-by=sikarska .

Mulberry. 2018c. “The Rider’s Lock,” Instagram, February 23. Accessed February 28, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BfjFa5dF6UR/?saved-by=sikarska .

Find in Library Weinschenk M. 2009. Neuro Web Design . Berkeley, CA : New Riders.

The author(s) wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion and independent learning. The authors do not intend to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a situation. The comments and interpretation presented are not necessarily those of the company or its employees.

This case has been written on the basis of published sources only. The interpretation and perspectives presented in this case are not necessarily those of the company in question or any of its employees.