Exploring the story, the man, the brand, Ralph Lauren

I’ve met Ralph Lauren, but hardly to any degree that he’d recall. But I did have a connection with him, decades ago. Brief. And unforgettable, for me. Likely completely unknown to him. Why? I’d pitched his group on creating a line of emblems for sport — specifically for squash — one of the sports that I love.

That was a catalyst to continuing a watchful surveillance over the last decades. What I’d offer is that the quintessential storytelling in the context of product development and brand expression is well exemplified in the overarching character of Ralph Lauren, the man, and in Ralph Lauren, the brand.

Ralph Lauren by Ralph Lauren

I’d been asked, at the International Retail Design conference held recently in Seattle, as a keynote speaker, what stories were the most compelling to the conceptions of store, of story, of brand. But our work is inherently all about story — everything we do, from motion picture design, to real estate, to entertainment brand development in hospitality; it’s all about telling tales, gathering an audience, holding them close — and captivating their attention.
So any story is worthy of exploration — examination — explication — explanation. Find, study, unfold, explain.

My references at the talk spoke of my work with Yves Saint Laurent, with the Nordstrom clan, with Apple and Steve Jobs.

Ralph Lauren at a collection planning meeting

But when it comes to story, and brand, there is one American brand that has been consistent in the evocation of imagination in a comprehensive, integrated and hybrid media expression. Ralph Lauren.

The Lauren family at the Double RL Ranch

The story of the Ralph Lauren brand proposition isn’t so much about the product, but it’s about the man. And while this might be seen as something — the brand, the person, the legacy — that is characteristic of fashion-related branding there’s a critical context to truth. While some brands have tried to “invent” themselves, others replicate, and still others are simply counterfeiting, Ralph is a truly inspired — and continuously aspiring — designer. He is the very character of aligning personal sensibilities and sentiment to the creation of visioned product. And, all along, we’ve followed him, in his life and how that experience has lent itself to his gallery of offerings.

The Polo brand legacy

Chicago writer, Elizabeth Blackwell assesses “Whether you’ve ever worn a shirt stitched with that iconic polo-player logo, you can’t deny the lure of the Polo Ralph Lauren image. Think of those ads, filled with elegant models lounging around the pool in the Hamptons, or arrayed on a stylish plaid picnic blanket with mountains rising in the distance. These idealized images may not reflect the life of the average American, but they’re powerful enough to resonate all over the world.”

Her positioning of the Ralph Lauren brand is that the story is what is truly being sold, “as much as it sells clothing and home accessories; the mythology is a key to the company’s success.” And that if it’s possible for a group product positioning to “find the right story…” it can effectively “compete in the global marketplace.”

Even while these are inordinately challenging times for retail, with sales falling off 3% in July of this year, after consistently raining gloom for eight months running, Ralph’s group announced that net income increased 8% in the past quarter, to $1 billion.

The company admitted sales of men’s and women’s clothing in the U.S. had fallen, that drop was offset by sustained growth in Europe. “The global appeal of our iconic products continues to expand,” according to Lauren statements.

Video style guides at ralphlauren.com

That celebration and success is about Ralph’s legitimacy of story and the very character of its implied authenticity. That lends itself to absorption — it’s embraced — by global audiences. Ralph’s history is appealing and implies dreams that viewers that many can identify with: born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, he now “lives a jet-set existence right out of one of his ads, with homes in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Jamaica and a ranch in Colorado. You don’t have to be an American to envy him — or to try to emulate his life.”

Brand legacy storytelling: Land Rover in Ralph Lauren Magazine (print and online)

And the potential of participating in brand visioning is about the concept of gathering in, being attuned to the story and how that can be personally shared.

Brand conceptualizations in lifestyle merchandising

That sharing lends itself to expanding — one story becomes another. And that story is personally held — by yet another. And, to a viral expansion, it spreads exponentially.

Fragrance merchandising in scent branding

But fashion implies a kind of responsiveness to trend. And while some designers evoke the outrageous, the mainstream story is how Lauren continuously innovates.

Merchandising brand experience in lifestyle alignments

But in a manner, Ralph’s work creates its own grouping of micro-trends that are less about spectacle and sensationalism and more, as well, about evolving classical thematic styling.

Differentiating brand strategy in layered product offerings (and stories)

It “sells itself as a brand that’s not swayed by trends, company’s designer collections cater to current styles when it comes to skirt lengths and the width of suit lapels.”; the focus is timelessness — and resonant wearing “sustainability” — focusing on classic looks.

Men’s branding folios for layered offerings

The company can sell in France as easily as in Japan, all while staying true to its overtly American image.

Madison Avenue flagship for Men Photo by Propertyshark

The styling of Ralph’s retail is exemplified, as well, in the storytelling that infiltrates their stores — 80 around the world, and they all sell the same glamorous-yet-restrained lifestyle. They imply the look of a Fifth Avenue mansion laden with the merchandising styling of the antique furniture that embodies the spirit of the brand.

Wimbledon Tennis Collection brand extension

The company has also been smart when it comes to marketing, aligning itself with events that attract an international audience. It seeks to create alignments that are brand relevant and audience resonant. For example, speaking of classic sporting, Polo Ralph Lauren provided the uniforms for Wimbledon tennis tournament officials. This past month, as an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team, Ralph Lauren garnered worldwide coverage at the Olympics in Beijing.

New brand development expanding demographic framing: Rugby

What relation is there to storytelling in the context of branding? Elizabeth Blackwell references, “it’s all about having a story, one that explains who you are and what your company stands for.

Brand storytelling in collection development

It could be your company’s multi-generational family history.” It could be the spirit of innovation and invention — consider the tale of how a product was created in a basement or garage (see Hewlett-Packard). “A good story crosses regional and even national boundaries. Ralph Lauren is a quintessentially American brand, yet it’s selling well in Europe. Why? Because that wealthy, relaxed, life-of-leisure image represents an easy-to-understand version of the American dream.”

What’s your story to tell, what truth might there be in the telling and finally, who cares? The point is the authenticity of the offerings, the depth of the layering of the brand — the deepening of the contact to the psyche of the receiver — the listener — and finally, that it offers resonation to captivate attention.

As a person, you have a story. As any brand is fundamentally human, speaking to humans, the psychic link is profound, memorable and unmistakable.

Tim Girvin | NYC