A New Take on an Old Story
In 2004, Ralph Lauren launched Rugby, a new brand to appeal to a new customer. The company was serious enough about the brand to attempt to trademark the use of the name in apparel and related categories. The Rugby brand had less to do with the wide striped, white collared shirts associated with the sport than the desire to appeal to a new, younger customer who may or may not have been familiar with the Ralph Lauren brand. Or brands, because there are several in the Lauren stable. More on that later.
The Rugby effort was not successful; either in a trademark lawsuit Ralph Lauren initiated which was dismissed with prejudice against all rugby-related defendants in 2011, or ultimately in the attempt to build a franchise for younger customers. All 14 Rugby stores and rugby.com were closed in 2013. Announcing the closings, Roger Farah, CEO of Ralph Lauren at the time, said, “This was not an easy decision to make, considering the hard work of the Rugby team over the last few years … We continue to believe that we can service the Millennial Rugby customer with brands such as Denim&Supply and Club Monaco” (Ralph Lauren bought Club Monaco in 1999).
The key words here are brands and millennials. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1997—note that the experts haven’t yet agreed on the cohort’s exact birth dates—have just surpassed the baby boomers as the largest living U.S. generation.
Millennials are officially adults, now aged 18 to 34, and projected by the Census Bureau to number 75.3 million this year. Their numbers are expanding due to immigration, while boomers, now 51 to 69, are decreasing due to death (Yikes, I am one!). The millennial population is expected to peak in 2037 at 81.1 million. Today, they represent one third of the U.S. population and one third of the labor force. The most highly educated generation to date, they are multi-ethnic (42 percent identify with a race or ethnicity that is non-Hispanic white), tech savvy commanders of about $1.3 trillion in annual buying power. All brands want a piece of the millennial market and, as marketing wisdom goes, want to imprint their brands on them early, while they are impressionable with hopes of winning brand loyalty over time.
The Ralph Lauren Brands
Ralph Lauren, the most iconic American brand—certainly in the apparel and retail space—is no exception in its desire to capture millennials. Perhaps after the shuttering of Rugby, the RL folks took a look at their brand architecture. The following brands for men and women existed in Ralph Lauren apparel:
- Ralph Lauren Purple Label and Ralph Lauren Collection: Top tier, couture, highest price points
- Ralph Lauren Black Label: High priced, upscale department store distribution
- Ralph Lauren Blue Label: Younger styling and fit, less expensive price, upscale distribution
- Lauren Ralph Lauren: Moderately priced, broad based department store distribution
- RRL: Outdoorsy, younger, rustic
- Denim & Supply: Younger, denim-based, more casual
- RLX Ralph Lauren: Active sports, upscale
- Ralph Lauren Childrenswear and Chaps
Confusing even to me, an aficionado, but, each with some reason for being, although I don’t think the differences are clear to most consumers. All of the brands echo the Ralph Lauren style and aesthetic and they fit within the World of Ralph Lauren—that rarified, well-curated vision of classic American style orchestrated by Ralph and his team in 138 Ralph Lauren stores, 20,000 dedicated shops-within-shops in department stores, and 235 factory stores with revenues in the last year totaling $7.62 billion. While each brand attempts to target a specific demographic either by price point, distribution, occasion or style, none are targeted specifically to millennials.
Enter Polo Ralph Lauren
In August 2014, Ralph Lauren opened the first Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue, smack in the center of Midtown, surrounded by hotels and tourists, outfitted with a new bold blue and gold logo. The 38,000 square foot store, another perfect example of Ralph Lauren retail theatre, includes men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, a coffee bar, a communal table to snack or relax in and, at a separate side entrance, in the space formerly occupied by La Cote Basque, the Polo Bar restaurant, featuring Ralph Lauren’s custom designed, favorite corned beef sandwich. It is not possible to get a reservation at the Polo Bar restaurant unless you are an A-list socialite, a celebrity, a tech entrepreneur or somehow a part of New York’s glitterati establishment. One Lauren insider told me he gets 30 calls a day begging for reservations. But, you can walk into the store, be greeted by a young millennial man or woman outfitted in the new Polo Ralph Lauren brand—the men usually sockless in oxfords, the women in tights, miniskirts and Shetland sweaters—ready and willing to guide you through this new world.
This is a world where the prices are more affordable by Ralph Lauren standards, where logo merchandise abounds, where tourists swarm and where the road bikes, foldable kayaks and even motorcycles, set pieces that are part of the ethos and displays, are for sale. Navajo prints and rugs appear on the sales floor and in dressing rooms, and on shirts, dresses and oversized cardigans. The Native American motif is repeated in turquoise and silver jewelry, long a Ralph Lauren staple, and in a vintage pink and green neon sign, “Navajo Lodge” hanging above a pine merchandise display table showcasing plenty of Navajo and western inspired shirts and buck suede desert boots that add to the western aura. Colors are everywhere. In bright logoed polo shirts, even brighter “big pony” polo shirts, chinos, T-shirts, brightly tropical patterned shirts and dresses, plaid gauzy scarves, ballet flats, purses and wallets. The bright colors are contrasted this season with lots of lacy whites for women, eyelet camisoles and blouses, hand crocheted and lacy over-tops, sundresses and sheer linen blouses.
The Polo Experience: A Fresh New Approach
An engaging, intelligent, smiling African American sales associate, a first-year college student, her Shetland cardigan half buttoned over an oxford shirt, told me that she had an eight-hour training course before going on the floor after the store opened. Associates learned that the company wanted a new and fresh approach for the new brand to reach a new and younger customer. She and her fellow associates were encouraged to “go out and be that fresh and new approach” and to be “totally focused on customer service.” They seem to be both. I asked if Ralph visits the store. Yes, she said, he does, and, after he visits “changes are made immediately.” It seems that this store and this brand are still a work in progress.
A manager with a strong jaw looking as if he stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad worked previously at Abercrombie and Joe Fresh. This is a brand where “fast fashion meets luxury” he confided. I asked him about the look and feel of the store and about the preponderance of logo merchandise, unusual for Ralph Lauren, I thought. Yes, he said, “we are moving away from that,” but tourists, possibly about 70 percent of customers at the Fifth Avenue flagship, buy it.
The Customer the New Polo Store and the Ralph Lauren Brands
As she examined a hot-pink leather purse, a well-dressed, 40ish Columbian business executive told me there were two Polo Ralph Lauren stores in Columbia. I asked what kind of Ralph Lauren stores they were. Polo she said. I counted Ralph Lauren stores in 23 countries from Australia to Vietnam on the company’s website, but found none in Columbia. I asked associates if there were stores in Columbia, or, if Ralph Lauren was distributed there.
They thought not. The customer’s confusion, misinformation or wishful thinking speaks to the strength of the Ralph Lauren brand. This customer knows Ralph Lauren and knows Polo but doesn’t distinguish among the brands within the franchise. A 40ish Manhattan exec and mother of two tween girls said simply, “My family and I always call everything that is Ralph Lauren “polo” anyway.”
I surveyed consumers about the new Polo Ralph Lauren store and brand. Note that the Polo brand name had been used for menswear in the past but it had never been applied to women’s wear until the launch of the new Polo Ralph Lauren store concept. Many consumers had not heard of the new store or brand, and many of those who said they had heard of it confused it with other existing Ralph Lauren brands/stores and could not differentiate among them. “I’m not sure which brand the Polo one is—whether it is the higher end or the lower end line … He has too many lines and I don’t know one from another,” said a Manhattan consultant. Another Manhattan executive said she “went to the store and frankly the fact that it is called the Polo store went over my head.”
For some brands this would be a conundrum. Not so, I think, for Ralph Lauren. What comes across from consumers is the strength of the guts of the brand. The knowledge of what Ralph Lauren stands for. Affection for the brand and a sense of its overall quality and heritage regardless of what it is called. “To me they all represent a strong and classic American look,” said one millennial who thought, as others I queried did, that the new Polo brand was “more casual than their other lines.”
To my mind, as long as the central Ralph Lauren brand premise of luxurious, authentic American style continues to be reinforced across platforms—in stores, in product, in customer experience and in communications under the Ralph Lauren moniker, the sub brands, some of which may come and go like Rugby and Blue Label, will benefit—although I do think it helps to have Ralph Lauren as a part of the name. Whether the new Polo Ralph Lauren endeavor will succeed in capturing millennials, I don’t know. What I do know is that consumers across generations who like Ralph want a piece of it regardless of what it is called. That is something few brands ever achieve.