Brand watch: Barbour, a lesson in heritage and values-led innovation

Worn by royals and pop icons alike, design icon Barbour is one of Britain’s classic brands.

It has been headquartered in the North East for the past 100 years and has a long lineage of family owner-managers, brand custodians one and all including Dame Margaret Barbour who took the reins in the 70s.,

Travelling draper John Barbour opened the first shop in 1894 in South Shields. His sons Jack and Malcolm came on board as partners in 1906. The first Barbour catalogue appeared in 1908, and within ten years the company was selling garments to South America, Hong Kong and South Africa.

In the 1930s Barbour began retailing clothing designed for motorcycling, kitting out British international motorcycling teams for three decades in Barbour International Oiled Cotton suits.

Margaret Barbour was born and brought up in Middlesbrough and trained as a teacher. Following her husband’s untimely death she dedicated herself to driving forward the business. She first became a director, working in every department to understand and appreciate the company root and branch.

In 1972 she took control of its fortunes when she accepted the role of chairman. Dame Margaret immediately began refreshing and diversifying the well-established brand, introducing accessories and new styles to open up the Barbour name to a wider range of age groups and countries.

The iconic designs of Barbour’s classic products, at the core of which are its corduroy-collared waxed jackets, are now evolving to include a large range of contemporary twists on a well-established theme.

Strong design, a deep understanding of retail markets worldwide yet retaining a very clear site of heritage and legacy all underpin Barbour’s perennial appeal. The company believes that design is a priority best carried out by those who know the brand well.

Dame Margaret said: “Design has been and remains at Barbour, a team effort. We have the benefit of being a smaller company that can work in a close team from the original conception of the product through to final production. We do not believe the brand has a need for a named designer like the pure fashion brands. We have always numbered designers from casualwear backgrounds within the team and find it is this mix of skills which makes our products unique and exciting.

It is essential, however, that designers understand the importance of Barbour’s history and heritage as this is at the very heart of the brand. We have our original catalogues from 1908 (when the first one was launched) and they are a constant source of material and inspiration to our design team.”

Barbour has been awarded three Royal Warrants, first from the Duke of Edinburgh, then the Queen, and in 1987, the Prince of Wales.

The royal connection has boosted sales – not only from the Royal Warrants but also from the Oscar-winning film The Queen. Helen Mirren’s depiction of the Queen wearing a Barbour jacket doubled sales in New York.

They may now have offices in Germany, France and America and close working relationships with distributors in all other markets, but Barbour’s brand identity is in safe hands. Dame Margaret comments: “It is important that as we develop and evolve the brand we remain true to our founding principles of quality, fitness for purpose and durability.

“New contemporary styles return you to relevance but only delivering quality and innovation can ensure that you remain there.”

Barbour prides itself on its values and ensures that each and every one of their employees embraces them, stimulated by communication, training and development, leadership and the cultivation of an internal culture that prioritises community, respect, integrity and trust.

As Sue Newton, head of PR states “You should never underestimate how important the trust is between company and consumer, how long it takes to build up and how quickly it can be destroyed.” There are many senior execs who’ve learned this lesson the hard way in recent times.

According to Chris Sanderson, cofounder of international trend consultancy The Future Laboratory, Barbour’s success is built on its values and is fed by a growing need for authenticity. In a Daily Mail article titled Why the Barbour is suddenly so Rock and Roll he writes “for this generation, Barbour is quite a discovery”. You could say the same for several generations who have discovered this grounded but innovative, classic brand.

Any lessons there for other sectors?

To read more about Barbour and the philosophy and the people who sustain and nurture this iconic brand, pick up a copy of Brand Champions which features an in-depth case study of the brand and its key champions in action.


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