At 5pm last Tuesday afternoon, four people carriers with blacked-out windows pulled up outside the Park Hyatt hotel in Beijing’s central business district. From one of them emerged the four members of the softly sentimental, slightly square, British pop group Keane. They had just returned from performing a three-song set at a turret on the Great Wall of China, and were wearing head-to-toe Burberry in honour of the brand that had paid for their trip. Local passers-by stopped, pointed their mobile phones at each member, and intermittently clapped.
The Great Wall performance was just a warm-up. Burberry had brought Keane to the country primarily to perform at the launch of their flagship Asia store in Beijing’s Sparkle Roll Plaza, a guest appearance that makes the band not just the latest UK musical group to attempt to boost their profile in the emerging markets, but a weapon in the luxury brand battle to hold the biggest, most extravagant event in the perceived consumer Valhalla that is China. Not that either the band or the label would put it that way, exactly.
“There are a billion people in this country,” says Keane’s lead singer Tom Chaplin. “Within that, there are a lot of kids that you would hope would love the idea of popular music. There’s something very enticing about getting a foot in that door.”
So is a high-fashion partnership simply a way to bolster the deflating British music industry? “[The money] is definitely enticing,” says Chaplin. “But Burberry is a nice brand to be associated with; forward-looking and innovative.”
“There have been a lot of things in the past that we’ve turned down,” says Keane’s drummer Richard Hughes, a little defensively.
Although Keane – not exactly a cool fashion band – might seem an odd choice for a luxury goods operation attempting to boost its ”wow” factor, Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer, believes that doesn’t matter. “Keane are not cynical. Not too cool for school. They care,” he says. There is also the fact that fashion brands approaching the Chinese authorities for a performance visa for more buzzy names such as Lady Gaga have been flatly turned down on the grounds of profanity and inappropriate conduct.
“You can see Keane’s excitement about being here,” says Bailey. “And I am a massive fan of their music.”
“We grew up listening to David Bowie, Queen and The Beatles, and you can’t separate them from fashion,” says Chaplin. “It would devalue the whole thing.”
Not that Keane are comparing themselves to the Beatles (at least hopefully not). And yes, they know the designer Antony Price running up a suit for David Bowie to wear in mid-1970s Berlin is different from a pop group personally endorsing a luxury brand and its marketing strategy. But, says Chaplin, “music is entering a new world”. In their case, literally.
The Great Wall performance, for example, was recorded for Burberry Acoustic, a website where bands chosen from Bailey’s personal music collection perform stripped-down versions of their songs. It’s all part of the label’s strategic effort to lead the fashion field online.
Indeed, the new media gurus in Burberry do not even talk of their web presence in terms of competing with other fashion brands, but rather with web goliaths such as Apple and Nike. Burberry has 5m fans on Facebook. Every Burberry staff member in Beijing was carrying a company-issued iPad, and the launch was carried on four Chinese social media platforms: Kaixin001 (over 500 Burberry fans), Douban (over 1,600 Burberry fans), Youku (over 1,300 views) and Sina Weibo (over 500 Burberry fans). It was, the brand said, the largest such event they have ever held – though when asked how much it cost, Bailey says, “I don’t think I am allowed to tell you, actually.”
Nevertheless, at first it seemed it could have been a risky investment, as Keane’s arrival in the country was trumped a week earlier by Bob Dylan playing his first – and much criticised – concerts there. Then there was the fact that Kate Middleton had been snapped wearing a Burberry trench at a charity event on March 8 in Belfast, and that the pictures had been syndicated everywhere – somewhat overshadowing any other news from the label. (Not that they minded: “All I can say is that she looked very beautiful in it,” says Bailey. “I think the particular trench had sold out already, or maybe sold out in a certain size in a certain shop.”)
But in China the band, and the brand, persevered. Announced with a dramatic 24-hour countdown on the Burberry website, then streamed live, the flagship launch was further beamed into 50 Burberry stores worldwide. At the venue, Britain was symbolised by a moving digital tapestry showcasing the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and the Gherkin, with flashes of Burberry plaid. Bailey looked delighted. And, as 1,000 VIP guests of Burberry drank and cheered at an enthusiastic Keane performance, it was hard not to think: maybe this season in Beijing, nice is the new fierce.