Luxury retailer Ralph Lauren has embraced digital marketing, with elegantly profitable results.
NEW YORK - Ralph Lauren Corp. may be the retailer of choice for tradition-bound polo players and yacht dwellers, as its ubiquitous ads suggest.
But the iconic American luxury retailer is in some ways more geek than chic. From virtual fashion shows to interactive store windows, Ralph Lauren has embraced digital marketing to a degree that might surprise anyone familiar with its 44-year-old heritage.
That's likely the reason the National Retail Federation picked David Lauren, the company's executive vice president of advertising and marketing and son of Ralph Lauren, to deliver the keynote speech on using digital technologies to market an iconic luxury brand.
Lauren says he is not particularly tech-savvy, but he does understand how to use it to promote the company.
"We fuse art, fashion and technology," Lauren said. "There is no secret. It's about finding the right technology to help you tell the story."
Much of the credit for the company's digital strategy goes to Lauren, who bears more than a passing resemblance to his father.
His efforts seem to be paying off.
In November, the company said second-quarter sales jumped 24 percent to $1.7 billion while profits rose 13 percent to $235 million. Online sales increased 25 percent.
In some ways, Ralph Lauren is riding a general wave of success among American luxury retailers. Upscale stores like Nordstrom and Tiffany's have reported strong sales.
Ralph Lauren, in particular, represents "classic American fashion," which is "very much alive to the current sensibilities of upper-income shoppers," said Minneapolis-based retail consultant Flora Delaney.
But traditional luxury retailers like Ralph Lauren have also pursued smart, digital marketing strategies to broaden their customer base, she said.
"The high-end brands have the capital to invest" in new tech-driven campaigns, Delaney said. "In order to be relevant to shoppers, they need to be able to invest in the alternative channels to talk to their customers. You can't only stay relevant to the 40, 50-year-old and above crowd."
Under Lauren's leadership, the company has transformed itself into a cutting-edge, tech-driven fashion retailer.
Ralph Lauren has introduced 24-hour, touch-manipulated storefront windows inspired by the futuristic sci-fi thriller "Minority Report." The retailer has also developed iPhone apps that allows consumers to design outfits they and other shoppers can view and buy at a Ralph Lauren store.
In 2010, the retailer created a stir in London and New York with its Ralph Lauren "4D" event. The company beamed giant, high-resolution holographic images onto a building in which polo players morphed into perfume bottles. The retailer then released actual fragrances into the crowd.
Last year, Ralph Lauren ran ads on the New York Times' iPad app for an entire month that streamed live fashion events.
It might seem odd that a luxury retailer that sells itself on tradition should so enthusiastically embrace a mass medium like the Internet. But Lauren said he recognized early on how the Internet could really drive sales.
"Luxury brands were not on the Internet," Lauren said. "But we knew the Internet was not just a cheap place to get coupons."
During the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Ralph Lauren rolled out its virtual stores, essentially a row of branded kiosks, so "customers could get comfortable with the idea of buying a $5,000 tuxedo on the Internet," he said.
Lest anyone question whether any of these bells and whistles actually generated sales, consider this: For fiscal 2011, Ralph Lauren's total sales grew 14.3 percent to $5.5 billion while profits jumped 18.3 percent to $568 million.
Regardless of age, anyone "can buy our products if we excite them in the right way," Lauren said.
Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113