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Posted Date: 1/26/2012

Ralph Lauren Focuses on 'Merchantainment'

The world of Ralph Lauren may evoke lazy strolls through the English countryside, polo-playing prep boys or well-heeled socialites courtside at Wimbledon, but under its sheen of to-the-manor-born tradition is a company that is increasingly calling on bleeding-edge technology to connect its timeless sensibility with the fast-moving, modern consumer.
 
This may sound surprising, but in truth Ralph Lauren has always been way ahead of its time, says David Lauren, executive vice president of advertising and marketing — and son of Ralph Lauren. Speaking to a large audience at NRF’s Tuesday Super Session last week, he reminded show attendees that his father was a visionary from the very beginning, working to “create a look” at a time when most designers “were just designers of a particular category.” Back then there were “no such things as brands, just shirt makers.”
 
Drawing the consumer in
The vision that created the first shop-in-shop where consumers could absorb the “entire sensibility of one brand” has evolved into the vision behind a compelling online presence and astounding use of technology that in the past two years has pushed the limits of engaging with the consumer in new ways. 
 
As early as 2000, when other brands were just figuring out how to launch a web site, says Lauren, Ralph Lauren embraced the digital space with what it terms “merchantainment” — the seamless blend of merchandising and entertainment — with online merchandise from polo shirts to evening gowns blended with editorial including RL Magazine, RL Styleguide and RL TV.
 
The company — which today has 23 brands, including the newly launched online only Denim & Supply — has been on a tear ever since, with the first ever online trunk show in 2001, and, as early as 2003, an opportunity for customers to personalize their own polo shirts on the web. That same year Ralph Lauren launched 15 international sites online.
 
The company “invested in video when it was stamp-sized, and found ways to make it giant;” it conducted hundreds of interviews and shared them online. In the early days of the internet, when luxury brands were not available online, Ralph Lauren “got customers comfortable with the idea that they could buy a $5,000 bag on the internet.
 
“We use the internet in a way no one has before us,’ says Lauren. “We tell stories to help create context.”
 
Making it fun to buy
It’s a good strategy. Greg Furman of The Luxury Marking Council, speaking at NRF, noted that the worldwide luxury market totals $750 billion. Broken down further, that equates to $200 billion in merchandise and $550 billion in experiential purchases — making it a smart move to keep the lines between the two as connected —and blurred — as possible.
 
Continuing to blur those lines, Ralph Lauren in 2009 launched an iPad shopping app with its Rugby brand, allowing customers to create their own signature styles, add their own faces to an avatar, send to friends and even to a touch screen on the store windows of Rugby stores, where other customers could purchase the creations as well.
 
Not to exclude the pint-sized, in 2010 Ralph Lauren produced an online children’s “shoppable” story book, The RL Gang, whose animated video, narrated by Harry Connick Jr., allows parents and kids to follow the adventures — and purchase the outfits directly from the storybook — of the characters in the tale.
 
David Lauren, who has largely spearheaded the company’s digital vision, says he is always looking to take the brand further — and often is put to the test of thinking big on a small budget. For example, the Rugby brand recently found an innovative way to get around the high cost (typically millions of dollars) of putting on a fashion show by creating and filming a fashion show in a room the “size of this stage” that could be posted online or cut-and-pasted to others, i.e., “Mom, this is what I want for Christmas.”
 
Inspired by an old video of Mickey Mantle giving baseball tips to kids, says Lauren, the company, official outfitter of Wimbledon, brought on tennis champ Boris Becker to do something similar, teaching a class to a live audience while taking online questions from around the world.
 
And this past September, the month of Fashion Week, Ralph Lauren bought all of the ad space available on the New York Times’ iPad app, which featured live streaming fashion events.
 
Going 4D
In perhaps its most innovative use of technology yet — and one not rendered on a small budget — Ralph Lauren celebrated the 10th year of its digital presence by bringing its Madison Avenue and Bond Street stores to life with what it terms a “4D experience.” In November 2010, at both locations in New York City and London, respectively, Ralph Lauren fused fashion, art and technology with an integration of film and live lighting, projecting real footage of real products, models, horses onto the facades of its stores, which had also been rendered in 3D, to allow the products to interact with the building itself.
 
Models seemingly walked in and out of the constantly shifting façade, building-sized neckties floated in the breeze and polo players appeared to burst through the masonry, the final rider morphing into the image on the side of the Ralph Lauren fragrance bottle, which then replicated into four bottles, one releasing a digital spray that coincided with the release of the scent into the street — for a “4D” effect.
 
“We are constantly reinventing ourselves. It’s what fashion is about; it’s what Ralph Lauren is all about,” says David Lauren. Still, he acknowledges, it can be a risk. At times during the production of its 4D event, the high costs and the unknown results of the project were a source of extreme concern for Lauren, who says when at one point when he considered throwing in the towel, he was buoyed by the full support of president and COO Roger Farah.
 
“It’s about finding technology that’s right for you — and then gambling.”
For Ralph Lauren, that gamble has paid off handsomely: For its fiscal year ending in April 2011, Ralph Lauren’s sales grew 13.9 percent to $5.7 billion while profits jumped 18.3 percent to $568 million and its profit margin grew to 10.03 percent (landing it at No. 7 in Apparel’s annual Top 50 Report in the July 2011 issue). 
 
Next up: this summer the company will be the official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team for the opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies and village attire. “It’s an amazing marketing opportunity, but it’s complicated,” says Lauren. Stay tuned for the online experience. Says Lauren: “It will be a surprise. It will blend everything we do.”
 
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at jspeer@apparelmag.com.
 
 

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