Polo's marketing and branding efforts, spearheaded by David Lauren, pay off.
To fashion observers, it is no secret Ralph Lauren has over the past decade reinvented his fashion house as a luxury brand with global dimensions.
Lauren's ongoing transformation is the result of a multifaceted approach, which included turning divisions like RLX and Double RL into stand-alone labels; exporting his lifestyle concept to markets like Japan and Russia; launching brands like Rugby, Chaps at Kohl's and American Living at J.C. Penney, and increasing the brand's visibility at high-profile sporting events.
The varied initiatives have demanded a unified branding effort. Enter David Lauren, the only one of Ralph Lauren's three children to have joined the family business. As senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications, he makes sure the Lauren touch runs through every ad campaign, promotional event or marketing initiative, whether it's in Argentina, Japan, Russia, England or the U.S.
"I'm responsible for taking my dad's vision and helping to find vehicles to bring his vision to life," Lauren explained.
To the outside world, as well as being known as his father's son, David Lauren may be recognized as presidential niece Lauren Bush's boyfriend — but internally, he is considered something of a force to be reckoned with. He had his media start as a sophomore at Duke University, when he launched Swing magazine for twentysomethings, which was eventually published nationwide in a partnership with Hachette Filipacchi. Lauren, 36 this month, officially joined Polo in January 2000 to launch Ralph Lauren Media and spearhead the creation of polo.com, and ultimately bring his father's essence to life on flat screens. Polo.com, with its "merchan-tainment" philosophy, video streams and custom-made programs, has become one of Polo's biggest success stories. Initially a joint venture with NBC-Lauren Media Holdings and ValueVision Media Inc., Polo paid $175 million to take full ownership of Ralph Lauren Media in March.
"We were able, for the first time, to offer an experience where not only can you look at a sweater or a dress but get the full experience around that dress, as if you walked into a store or stepped into our ad," Lauren said, explaining polo.com's success. "It was no longer just a photograph of Penélope Cruz sitting in a car in front of a beautiful old home. Now you could watch a video interview with Penélope Cruz. You could buy the clothes that she's wearing. You could get makeup tips to learn how she's wearing her makeup. You could read a story about the car she's sitting in and you could have videos to show you how to paint your house exactly like the one behind you...so now it was an immersive experience. You could literally step into a Ralph Lauren ad, and that had never been done before."It has paid off. Today, polo.com is the company's largest retail channel and, according to Lauren, the best online business is conducted in cities that also boast Polo boutiques — and the company has recently even begun integrating Internet features into its stores, such as some of the video streams, programs like Create-Your-Own Polo shirt and interactive screens on store exteriors to allow customers to shop for apparel 24/7, with touch-sensor technology.
Lauren conceded there had been more than a few naysayers to increased technology in the beginning.
"A lot of people thought [polo.com] could be threatening to the business," Lauren recalled of the launch. "The feeling was not much different than when we opened the store on 72nd Street, when a lot of department stores thought it would hurt their business. And yet, it actually lifted all boats because it provided a showcase. [The Internet] has been a lift."
Seven years later, Lauren is still closely tied to the Internet venture, but has been charged with more responsibilities in the advertising and marketing areas. According to him, Polo produces more than 200 advertising campaigns a year, a number that includes magazine ads, made-to-measure mailers and billboards. The company also advertises on the 'Net, but unlike many competing fashion houses, Polo prefers full-screen pop-up ads that sometimes showcase footage of the runway collection or other lifestyle imagery of the company.
"It's cinematic, and the idea was not to just run a 1-inch-by-1-inch ad," Lauren said. "There's an experience and there's a mood to our online advertising."
The company has also become more visibly involved in sports, particularly tennis. It is the apparel sponsor for the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, two high-profile Grand Slam tennis tournaments.
"[Ralph Lauren] had explored sports marketing in the past, and I built on that by getting us involved with the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and sort of...owning these Grand Slams," he said. "It really was part of the effort to put some heat around the Polo shirt and the Polo player and these were two initiatives that I brought to the table that I thought very much embodied my dad's philosophy."And they worked. The Big Pony logo that was created to read better on television during the championships revived the Polo shirt, which had languished in years prior.
"We weren't sure if it was actually going to sell, if it was going to be called the Big Pony or the Big Mistake. Everybody was very worried," Lauren recalled. "In fact, we didn't buy a lot for the stores. We were very cautious. And they blew out. Within four days, they sold out. It's probably been one of the biggest signature items in the last three or four years."
Those who have passed a newsstand in recent weeks will have seen Ralph Lauren smiling from the covers of numerous magazines, and of all fashion families, the Laurens are perhaps the most public as a unit. They like to travel together to such far-flung locations as Tokyo and Moscow, where they patiently pose for photographers at store openings, and they typically occupy a prime spot in the front row of every Ralph Lauren runway show.
Yet David Lauren downplayed the notion the family's public appearances are a conscious part to further the lifestyle brand experience. "We like being together as a family," he said. "We are a close family, so if my dad is going to open a store in Russia, where his family and my grandparents are from, it makes sense for us to go there and be part of that trip. It was an experience that we wanted to be a part of, so we're just kids wanting to see our dad put on a cool show, and I was lucky enough to also help organize it."
That said, Lauren conceded his father's personality is intricately tied to the brand's image, and even if he isn't on a magazine cover or in an ad campaign, the mood and attitude associated with him is always being evoked, whether it's Black Label, Purple Label, Lauren Ralph Lauren or Rugby. And as the overall brand strengthens, the aim is to allow for much cross-pollination.
"It's all based on the same philosophy," Lauren said. "We don't really look at the brands as separate. They're all part of one ideology, one sensibility. There are people who only wear Rugby, and people who mix it with Purple Label. Some people wear Rugby when they're 25, then buy Purple Label when they're over 40, because they can afford it. There are no rules, they're all within the Ralph Lauren family. The only one [exception] I'd say is that if you're 70, you probably wouldn't wear children's."
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