Ralph Lauren Looks to Innovate Beyond Mobile Comfort Zones

Five Questions With David Lauren on Why the Lux Fashion Marketer Is Investing in Technology -- and Others Aren't

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Polo Ralph Lauren has long been out in front of its luxury and fashion peers when it comes to technology. The brand was among the first to embrace e-commerce, and, in more recent history, it has been aggressive in its use of mobile marketing.

David Lauren
David Lauren
Last year alone, the company went live with a mobile commerce platform, began using QR Codes and launched its first iPhone app (this month it launched its second app around its Rugby brand). The "Make Your Own Rugby" iPhone app allows users to personalize rugby and polo shirts, as well as upload their photos to virtually try on the shirt.

Leading the charge is David Lauren, senior VP-advertising, marketing and corporate communications. He also happens to be the son of chairman-CEO Ralph Lauren. The 37-year-old took on the marketing role at Polo Ralph Lauren in 2001 and has held his current title for just over a year.

Mr. Lauren admits it's a challenge to stay on the cutting edge while maintaining the brand's timeless, lux image. Likewise, many competitors have been tentative when it comes to taking advantage of technology and social media. But embracing technology gives Polo Ralph Lauren a competitive advantage, Mr. Lauren said. Quick response (QR) codes, which are bar codes that can be scanned with cellphones to get content associated with the product, for example, might not yet be widely used in the U.S., but in Japan they're just another way to shop. When the U.S. catches up, Polo Ralph Lauren, which spent $171 million on advertising in fiscal year 2009 -- down 9% from fiscal year 2008, according to the company -- will be ready, Mr. Lauren said.

"We want to be exploring [technology] right now, so that our learning puts us ahead of the curve," he said. "Each learning is a brick in the wall, and we want to be at the top of the wall when the floods come."

Here, Mr. Lauren talks to Ad Age about why his competitors are lagging behind in the digital space, why the company has increased investment in mobile marketing and why it's OK to make consumers a little bit anxious.

Ad Age: Why are so many fashion and luxury brands lagging behind when it comes to digital innovation?

Mr. Lauren: For some brands, technology is not a natural extension of what they do. They're trying to create a brand based around the technology that's in front of them, and that's doing it backwards. For many brands, their resources and talent are really not optimized to take on these new challenges, but they're learning quickly, and that's the beauty of technology.

Ad Age: What innovations, technologies or social media applications are most interesting to you right now?

Mr. Lauren: Technologies that help us tell our story are interesting to us. We created something called 24-hour [window] shopping, which was interactive windows, which we launched with our efforts to promote the U.S. Open in 2006. The idea was that we were sponsoring the U.S. Open, and we wanted to make sure to explain the authenticity of our relationship with tennis. We wanted to allow shoppers to shop the product in our window, but also to get tennis tips, learn about the U.S. Open and our relationship, read articles about the events and to even learn how to hit a backhand. It's fun and entertaining for a customer that wants a new way to communicate with us.

Ad Age: Why have you been so aggressive in mobile marketing? Do you think it's the next big thing for fashion?

Mr. Lauren: Absolutely. The success we've had over the last year has encouraged us to invest more. It takes our brand to a new place and opens up a new field of business. When we launched our app [related to the fall 2008 collection] a year ago, there were two luxury brands, and now there are probably hundreds. Macy's is going to be selling on mobile phones.

It's great to see all these brands innovating on the phone. It takes shopping and really makes it a part of your life. A single ad in a magazine with a dress or two is powerful, but being able to show 52 looks to someone standing on a corner in Texas [using their phone] is another way to touch them. We're actually selling rugby shirts and sweaters and jackets and all kinds of products [using mobile technology]. We're feeling very good about our efforts there. We know that we're early, but that's OK because we're building a sensibility that is unique, and we're exciting our customers.

Ad Age: Why did you feel it was necessary to embrace QR Codes?

Mr. Lauren: QR technology is something we discovered when we were opening our store in Japan about four or five years ago. It was very cool. We thought that it seemed so natural in Japan, where more people shop on their cell phones than on their computers. When we launched it, we got a lot of credit for being innovators, and many people have followed suit. There are early adopters and there are other people that will wait for the cell-phone explosion to come.

Ad Age: All of these things, the interactive windows, QR codes and mobile apps, are cool and innovative. But are consumers actually using them to shop?

Mr. Lauren: We recognize it's new and people will be concerned about it or anxious to shop on them, so I would say that it's more about us doing things that we think are interesting and hoping the customer will be as excited as we are. I do believe in the sensibility of, if you build it, they will come, if the excitement is there. Just like when we built our store on Madison Avenue, about which many people said, "Why does a single designer need an entire store?"

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