Polo Ralph Lauren’s technological advances are being led by the legendary designer’s son, who says the brand’s new UK transactional website will do no harm to its stockists
I want to invent a cup that keeps coffee warm,” says David Lauren, as he stares at his large Starbucks coffee, referring to the numerous cups he has had to drink today to keep himself alert during his hectic London schedule. Normally based in the US, the Polo Ralph Lauren senior vice-president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications, and son of Ralph, is in the capital to bring the US business’s New Bond Street store to life using 4D technology.
“But shouldering the stress is important. The [4D] concept moves you forward and makes you think differently,” the 39-year-old says of the architectural mapping technology launched at the New Bond Street store last month, which enabled the company to project holograms of polo players and Ralph Lauren waving from one of the store’s windows above spectators on the ground.
Making things happen
It is an initiative that is symptomatic of the strategy at Polo Ralph Lauren, which includes womenswear and menswear brands Black Label and Purple Label, Polo Ralph Lauren for men and Lauren for women, over the past few years, as the business embraces technology and innovation - if a cup that keeps coffee warm was what this brand needed, then you could bet on Lauren to make it happen.
He was not afraid to call up film director Steven Spielberg in 2006 to ask about a piece of technology he showcased in his film Minority Report. Lauren’s inquisitiveness led to 24-hour, virtual shopping at the brand’s New York Madison Avenue store via terminals on its windows that allowed shoppers to buy product even when the store was closed.
While the latter has a measurable element - success can be gauged via sales figures - it is harder to glean KPIs from expensive initiatives such as the 4D technology. “Our mission is to create a sensibility to tell our story. A lot of what we do is measured, but how can you measure [enhancements to brand] value?” asks Lauren. “We would never take out the mahogany in our stores because we can’t measure its effect - it’s in our [brand] DNA. When we launched [m-commerce] technology in 2008, most people didn’t have it on their phones, so we were too early on it [to get the financial benefits], but we learnt about the technology.”
Lauren says the ideal initiatives “marry the two” - creativity and commerciality - and points to the brand’s live tennis clinic during last year’s Wimbledon championships as an example. Tennis enthusiasts could ask former tennis star Boris Becker questions live via their mobile phones or computers, and Becker would answer their questions with demonstrations, such as how to do a kick serve. And, because the brand has a dedicated Wimbledon clothing range, which users could click on to buy via the website while taking part in the tennis clinic, it became a “shopable experience”.
Perhaps a less pioneering, but safer technological innovation, is Polo Ralph Lauren’s UK transactional site, launched in October. Yet the build-up to the launch was marred by angry wholesale stockists who feared it would compete with them, especially given the promotions sometimes featured on the US website.
“They don’t need to be worried,” Lauren assures. “It’s going to help everybody. When my dad opened our first store near Bloomingdale’s [in New York], [former chief executive] Marvin Traub was worried it would harm their business. Two weeks later, business in Bloomingdale’s [for Polo Ralph Lauren] went up. The US promotions won’t be mirrored in the UK.”
As for the success of the UK site to date, Lauren declines to give figures, but nods in agreement when Drapers quotes back Polo Ralph Lauren’s pre-launch target of achieving an incremental growth of 20% of UK sales from ecommerce within the site’s first two years and asks if he is on track to do so. UK turnover was £17.8m for the year ended March 28, 2009. “Sounds good,” he says.
“Over the last two years [before going transactional] we’d seen a lot of traffic going to the UK site. And now it’s not just about traffic but about the quality of the customer - they’re buying multiple pieces.” Lauren says content devised for the website is “totally independent from what we do in stores. It’s not secondary. We put a safari jacket next to a piece of editorial about safari jackets.” Making sure the website is treated as an individual sales channel, with appropriate content, is vital, says Lauren - the web isn’t purely an add-on.
But the online push is not at the expense of Polo Ralph Lauren’s bricks-and-mortar businesses. “We have to create [shops] for consumers, so they’re just as important as the internet,” he says.
Building on ideas
With Polo Ralph Lauren at the forefront of technology, what innovations can we expect in the coming years? “Things like [location-based social networking site] Foursquare weren’t around six months ago - who knows if it will continue to be a force? Twitter wasn’t really happening a year and a half ago. Only a palm reader knows what will be hot in three months’ time,” he says. “But everybody builds on everybody’s ideas. My dad said to himself after his first womenswear collection, ‘I don’t know how I can ever do another fashion show’, like he didn’t have much more to say. But if you have a good team around you, ideas build on ideas.”
Yet, for all his forward thinking, Lauren advises against big ideas for the sake of big ideas. “The most important thing is not to search for the next big thing,” he says. “Think about the small things your customers want. Most of the [initiatives] we’ve launched started from a problem and we looked for a solution. You’d be so disconnected [from your customer] if all you wanted was to launch a massive project.”
2001 Senior vice-president of advertising, marketing and communications, Polo Ralph Lauren
2000 Chief creative and marketing officer, Ralph Lauren media
1994 Editor-in-chief and president, lifestyle magazine Swing