Change Agents: Lacoste

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The spirit of Rene Lacoste is alive and well in Robert Siegel's midtown Manhattan office. Portraits of the famed 1920s French tennis star hang prominently amid images of much more modern embodiments of the Lacoste brand. Case in point: A framed photograph of Paris Hilton wearing a Lacoste polo shirt from a recent Vanity Fair article leans against the wall just below a black-and-white photograph of Rene in tennis whites.

It's a familiar paradox to the $2 billion apparel brand, one that's experienced a revival of striking proportions. Today's Lacoste stands for youth, color, coolness, style and luxury due representation on Madison Avenue and in modern boutiques. Lacoste U.S. sales rose 70% in 2005.

Still, it's a brand rooted squarely in its history, says Mr. Siegel, chairman-CEO of Lacoste USA. That's why, when Lacoste brought Mr. Siegel, who had been consulting for the company, on board in 2002, he felt so strongly that Lacoste still had legs. "It's the real deal, it has a history," says Mr. Siegel, a 29-year Levi Strauss veteran, launching Dockers, and former Stride Rite CEO.

Lacoste's history dates to 1933, when Rene Lacoste first marketed the polo shirt. General Mills owned the Lacoste license in the 1980s, pairing the crocodile logo with the Izod name in the U.S. Prices and quality were low, and the subsequent cost-cutting and inability to meet demand all but killed the brand. Lacoste French parent Devanlay bought back the brand, left the marketplace for a few years, then re-emerged in 1992 with a plan to sell only in better stores and open Lacoste retail boutiques. Still, the company struggled in the U.S.

Joining the company, Mr. Siegel's goal was two-fold: Leverage Lacoste's rich heritage, but rebuild the brand to make it resonate to a new market.

It took him six months to assess problems in areas such as target market, design, retail and pricing. "The company at the time didn't have the experience in this business that would have been allowing them to make what appeared to be tough decisions, and they were trying to be everything to everybody," he says. "I brought to the company a very clear direction and focus on who we should be, what kind of products we should have, who our target consumer was going to be, what our distribution strategy should be, how important retail would be to us-meaning our own retail stores-and quickly put into place a plan that really addressed each of those points."

He removed the brand from several department stores, keeping it only in "premium" stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. And even in those, he kept a close eye on where the product would be displayed in relation to other brands.

The company launched a concerted effort to target the 18-to-34-year-old demographic by presenting Lacoste as "aspirational," Mr. Siegel says. "So we really focus on being in the right movies and having our product shown in the right kind of magazines," he says, pointing to the Paris Hilton article that ran in a recent issue of Vanity Fair and referring to editorial coverage in Teen Vogue and GQ.

A key Lacoste strategy has been avoiding overexposure. "Overexposure is really, really dangerous for any brand, and that's how we keep our cool factor-by just being conscious of that."

The clothing has been restyled-new Lycra stretch polos for women, for example-and expanded, to include woven dress shirts for men.

Quality and prices have come up in keeping with the brand's aspirational appeal. Polo shirts-priced low in the late 1980s (matching the low quality), jumped to $69 each in 1992 when the company reintroduced the brand. Mr. Siegel kept them at $69 until 2005, when he increased the price to $72.

Also central to Lacoste's turnaround is retail. The 11 stores that were operating when Mr. Siegel came on board were underperforming, but he grasped onto a concept Lacoste developed in France of modern, white stores with curved walls and great lighting-a departure from Lacoste's old store concept featuring blond wood, green carpet and an overall 1980s men's golf-inspired environment. "We wanted to go young and modern, we wanted to be aspirational, and we felt all of those elements were contained in this new store image." By year-end, 46 stores will be open.

Another key shift: a new ad strategy. Lacoste corralled the talents of British photographer David Sims to shoot its print campaign, launched in July 2005, which was styled by well-known stylist Joe McKenna. The company spent close to $6 million on advertising in 2005, up from $2 million in 2004. And it now sponsors tennis pro Andy Roddick. "We look at Andy as purely lifestyle," Mr. Siegel says. "He is a very cool, contemporary-that is our bull's-eye of who our customer is."

Lacoste's reinvention is ongoing. "I'm always thinking about what we can do to improve our product, improve our placement in stores," he says. "It's constantly evolving."
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