I could not think of a more fitting way to close out my reign as The Harbus Viewpoints Editor than to interview someone who is starting a new reign of his own. David Lauren, son of Seventh Avenue king Ralph Lauren, is the new man in charge of Polo Ralph Lauren’s marketing, advertising and corporate communications and the driving force behind the company’s new look. Long known as a luxury retailer, Polo Ralph Lauren has been offering us polo shirts, cashmere sweaters, suits, and evening dress at its picturesque stores since the 1980’s. In 2000, the company went online with the launch of the Polo.com. Today, under the careful direction of David Lauren, the Ralph Lauren brand is expanding as Polo.com continues to grow and the company launches new concepts like its Rugby Store here in Boston. I spoke recently with David Lauren to get a peek inside “The World of Ralph Lauren”.
Harbus: How has the Ralph Lauren brand evolved?
David Lauren: The brand has evolved a lot. We are a fashion company, but we are probably one of the most consistent fashion companies around. As fashion changes, we continue to come up with new collections, styles, and advertisements to stay current with fashion. But in all of our collections we strive to capture the classics, really the best of Americana.
Harbus: What was the concept behind Polo.com?
DL: Polo.com is an extension of our other retail businesses. It is a joint venture between NBC and Polo Ralph Lauren. The idea really was to create a website that showcases the Ralph Lauren sensibility, lifestyle, and clothing. It’s a merger of clothing and content, to help us tell our story. Through it, we can take our advertisements and bring them to life. We can make them more cinematic. The website gives you the experience of walking into a store. We call it “Merchantainment”. It’s the blending of merchandising and entertainment. For instance, you might go into a store that has a very Ernest Hemingway feel with maybe a kayak hanging from the ceiling or vintage books around. Online, we might have an interview with someone who edited one of Hemingway’s books or we might write a travel piece about one of the places Hemingway wrote one of his books from. We are trying to put some context around the designer’s image. The site has been very successful and is a great way for use to extend our brand.
Harbus: What are the challenges you have faced with Polo.com?
DL: Merchandising; because you don’t just have to satisfy New York, Palm Beach or Beverly Hills. You have to merchandise for the whole country, which includes warm climates, cold climates, West coast, East coast, rural cities, and big cities. So understanding who are our customers and where are they from is our number one challenge. Another challenge is setting up our systems so that we can make sure we deliver quickly while maintaining the quality that our customers gets in our stores. Finally, making the site easy to navigate when you have so many different brands and products is a challenge. To do that, we pretend that who ever is on our site is a first-time customer and we make sure that the site is clean and basic, yet as luxurious as any Ralph Lauren store.
Harbus: How transferable is the Ralph Lauren brand to the online content?
DL: Our content has been successful because it integrates nicely with our merchandise. What we tend to find is that the people who know our product line do not just think of us as a shirt, tie, cashmere sweater, or evening dress. They think of the lifestyle, the sensibility. When you look at our advertisement and you see a women sitting with a beautiful dog in a beautiful home in Palm Beach you imagine a lifestyle. Our customers not only want the Ralph Lauren dress, they also want the lifestyle. It is not unusual for a customer to come in and say that they really want the dog they saw in one of our advertisements or to ask ‘what is that beautiful flower on the table next to a lady?’ in an advertisement. In some cases, they ask ‘where was the advertisement photographed?’ because they would like to take their husband or wife there. So what we did is turn that interest into content online. Now you can go online and read about a dog’s breeder, find out where you can purchase flowers, or even book a trip. And if you are really interested you can hear from the model in the advertisement through a video interview with her. We are taking you into the advertisement by making it cinematic.
Harbus: Besides the content, what else is different about Polo.com?
DL: One of the things we launched on Polo.com is the make your own polo shirt. Customers have been buying polo shirts for 30 years, so they are an American institution. Sometimes, however, a customer will come into a store and say, I love the navy polo shirt, but can I get it with a yellow horse on it. Well now they can, online. What we did was merge the classic polo shirt with the advances of Polo.com and came up with the make your own polo shirt. It is probably the best selling product on our site now. Last spring, we launched the make your own oxford and this spring we are going to launch the make your own tie. Soon, you’ll be able to pick the stripes and dots for you Ralph Lauren ties. It gives the consumer an opportunity to choose and gives them better access to what they are looking for.
Harbus: What is the inspiration for the new Rugby brand?
DL: Polo has been around for over 30 years and we have created a lot of brands. Our brands are very aspirational and in a lot cases very expensive. With the Rugby brand, we want to create a line that is a little bit edgier and more affordable, that enables Ralph Lauren to grow in a new way. The Rugby brand clothing is just something that you want to wear and keep. It’s not something that is going to be gone in a week or a month. It’s something you can keep your whole life. It’s timeless classic with an edge.
Harbus: Where can we find Rugby merchandise?
DL: Right now, the only Rugby store is on Newbury Street in Boston. It is our test store. It is doing very well and we are learning a lot from it about the product, the quality, and the store’s audience. We are looking to expand into new areas over the coming years. Our goal with the Rugby store is to create free standing businesses on or near college campuses. We are looking at locations in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and maybe Georgetown in DC. Nothing is confirmed yet, but there will be more announcements over the coming years. We really think we have a hit on our hands and I would not be surprised if there were five to ten new stores in the next 12 to 18 months.
Harbus: Explain the Ralph Lauren apprenticeship program with Harvard University?
DL: As a company, we are very concentrated on our consumer. We are not out to be just another big brand. With the Rugby store, we created a small store that we tried to make feel very homey. To do so, we talked with a lot of students and tried to find out what makes them feel good. We went directly to Harvard and asked students ‘what type of clothes do you like?’ and ‘if you love our product, what is the best way for us to market our sensibility to you?’ That experience taught us that the only way to make sure that our product reaches the right customer is to work closely with the people who love our clothing. So we came up with this idea to select some of the top marketing students on campus and give them $5,000 to $10,000 to market our product in the right way. We are not looking for big signs all over campus. We are looking for things that reflect the quality of our brand and the quality of our products. Our goal is to find the next generation of Ralph Lauren employees.