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Will Ralph Lauren's 50th Anniversary Extravaganza Help it Survive Another 50 Years?

The American stalwart is pouring an additional $100 million into marketing over the next five years, with events like Friday evening’s spectacle headlining the plan.
Central Park's Bethesda Terrace | Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lauren
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United StatesRalph Lauren Disney-fied fashion. Starting in 1968, the American entrepreneur, born Ralph Lifshitz, invented an alluring world rooted in New England upper crust prep and Western Americana that became a status symbol for millions of consumers in the 1980s and early 1990s at the peak of its relevance. It was Lauren's movie, and we were living in it.

But recent sequels have failed to live up to the original, and the company’s wares became less popular with consumers. Ralph Lauren generated $6.2 billion in sales in its most recent fiscal year, nearly a billion dollars down from $7.4 billion just two years ago. Part of the decline was due to the short-term impact of the plan Ralph Lauren’s leadership put in place to revive the company’s fortunes: sub-brands were shut down and executives revamped the wholesale strategy.

“It was turning around the Titanic over there,” said Rebecca Duval, an analyst at Bluefin Research. “This huge operation was run in a very particular way for so many years.”

So far, the market has reacted favourably to the changes that have already taken place, with shares up nearly 5 percent in the month following the company’s latest earnings report.

This huge operation was run in a very particular way for so many years.

But many believe radical change is still needed on the creative side of the company for Ralph Lauren to regain relevance in the eyes of today's luxury consumer. And that inevitably means devising a clear plan for how Mr Ralph Lauren, now 78 years old, hands over the reins to a new creative leader. (The executive chairman and chief creative officer has not communicated any retirement plans.)

In June, chief executive Patrice Louvet laid out a five-point strategic plan to boost revenue by $1 billion over the next five years by capitalising on underpenetrated categories — such as denim and women's work clothes — and improving the core product offering.

Those paying close attention may already detect subtle changes: Ralph Lauren, the man, is undoubtedly an American icon, and the company is doing more to take advantage of that. For instance, the men's Autumn/Winter 2018 Purple Label collection included a novelty intarsia sweater featuring the designer in a cowboy hat, chewing on straw.

It was a great, irreverent piece that happened to track well on social media, with editors and buyers at the Milan presentation capturing it on Instagram Stories. (A post featuring the jumper generated more than 40,000 likes, while similar images published on the same day generated under 20,000.)

Last year, the company also began staging splashy events reflecting Lauren’s worldview and tale of entrepreneurship. “We can make our story really stand for that as powerfully as it does individual product and lifestyle,” said chief marketing officer Jonathan Bottomley, who joined from troubled youth media juggernaut Vice Media in April 2017.

Which brings us to Friday, September 7. In celebration of 50 years in business, Mr Lauren has invited 500 guests, as well as fans following along on social media, to join him on Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace to experience a kind of high-wattage amusement park, where the rides have been replaced by a runway. The evening will be split into three acts. Act 1, a digitally driven “immersion,” where LED sculptures will display cuts from the designer’s most memorable collection reels. Guests will be led into two T-shaped chambers, where images from advertising campaigns will be projected across the walls, culminating in a series of holograms that tell the brand’s story through Lauren’s own narration.

Act 2 is a runway show, which, for the first time, will feature more than just women's ready-to-wear: Men's Purple Label, Polo Ralph Lauren and Double RL will also be worn by several of the 150-plus models, who span multiple generations. (It will be the first time many guests will clock the work of new Polo Ralph Lauren women's creative director Michael Rider, who arrived from Céline in February.)

For Act 3, it’s dinner, with decor inspired by Ralph’s (the brand’s popular restaurant in Paris) and flavours by the Polo Bar (its booked-solid spot in New York City). The beef for the filet mignon will be flown in from Lauren’s own ranch in Colorado. Seriously.

Experiential, to the say the least. Expensive, too. The company plans to boost its marketing spend by $100 million over the next five years. But how do multi-million-dollar events such as this translate that into something consumers, too, can taste? After all, Lauren hasn’t yet given up on its “see now, buy now” strategy — a selection of the 50th-anniversary collection will be available immediately to purchase online, at the brand’s global flagships and in department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

Bottomley has plotted out a layered marketing strategy, with nuances across channels and regions: IGTV will play a role for Western consumers, as will WeChat for China and Line for Japan. Certain elements will be live-streamed, others will be teased out over the weekend. If a platform exists, he's using it, building on the success of last September's extravaganza, when the brand hosted 300 guests in the designer's classic car garage upstate. According to Bottomley, that event — which was amplified by a lead up on Instagram Stories — generated over 1 billion social media impressions. In the days after, retailers anecdotally told BoF that sell-throughs of the collection were strong.

If “Ralph’s Garage” aimed to offer guests and social media followers alike intimate access to a facet of Lauren’s life, the 50th Anniversary event is more expansive in scope. “We’re taking this opportunity to bring the full picture to life, using each brand to tell the breadth of the story,” Bottomley said. “That’s the power of the story that Ralph built.”

We're taking this opportunity to bring the full picture to life, using each brand to tell the breadth of the story.

Bottomley also emphasised that the inclusion of the multiple brands in the show doesn’t mean there will be further changes to Ralph Lauren’s brand architecture. (In 2016, under the watch of then-chief executive Stefan Larsson, the company closed its youth-focused brand Denim & Supply and did away with its upscale Black Label.)

While the brand’s own social reach — more than 12 million Instagram followers across its four official accounts and more than 9 million likes on Facebook — is significant, Bottomley said that the brand is working with 125 digital influencers and celebrities in order to get the word out and target the customers he believes are essential to the company’s growth: working professional men in their early-to-mid 30s, new-to-the workforce women in their mid-to-late 20 and the creative class. Working with a slew of different notable names “reflects the diverse nature of the brand,” he said. “It’s not just one face or one icon.”

In traditional advertising, the company took a tailored approach to its print-and-digital buys. (Vogue will run advertising featuring the ready-to-wear campaign, while Elle will feature Polo Women’s and GQ will feature Polo Men’s.) When asked whether the approach ruffled feathers among titles, Bottomley said the company doesn’t “delineate in terms of importance or hierarchy. It’s about the consumer, about their audience.”

Of course, the traditional publishing industry — which has seen advertisers reallocate their budgets as brands find new ways to directly (and often more cheaply) connect with the consumer — will take what it can get for now.

But will these sweeping marketing efforts, combined with operational and product changes, be enough to convince the new generation to buy a ticket to the Ralph Lauren remake?

Bottomley bristles at the idea that parts of the brand have become dusty, saying that Ralph Lauren "over-indexed" with millennials in its key markets in a survey of 12,000 consumers across 10 regions.

“We will always stay 100 percent true to the essence of what Ralph has created,” he said. “Authenticity is value.”

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