Jonathan Bottomley, Ralph Lauren's First CMO

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We spoke with Jonathan Bottomley about the company's rich history, breadth of product offerings, customer engagement, and the omnichannel opportunities that lie ahead.  

As brand aficionados, we find the appointment of CMO at Ralph Lauren intriguing. The role is significant, and the brand is iconic. At last count, the company has four main categories, and if our math's correct twelve labels. You were brought in to help the company write the next chapter. 

You're well known as a strategist, what's your primary objective?

Ours is an industry like many others experiencing a great deal of turbulence. In some ways, you can see that as a problem, but it's really a time of great opportunity. I think that's what most people are excited about here. I think that's what most people are excited about here. 

We live in an OmniChannel world. Based on the revenue growth many brands are experiencing the digital transformation, specifically mobile, do you think of digital as the next big market?

Well ... we aim to go where the consumer is going. Go to where they're spending time, whether that's from a cultural or media perspective, and there's no doubt that people are enjoying the variety of different ways of shopping driven by digital. So we have to show up in those spaces. 

It's about showing up where they want to be and engaging them. Showing up, in a welcoming way. If they're interested in fashion, then having a story that intrigues them that's the first thing. The real question is why do they want to spend time with us?  I think that's particularly true on a phone because it's fairly ever-present and very intimate. 

If they're interested in other aspects of life; living, travel, for example, our recent show around the cars, then finding that angle to engage, and intrigue them.

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Do you think a mobile app can be as effective for a brand like Ralph Lauren as a commodity product? 

I don't know that we leap straight to an app as an execution, but indeed finding ways to engage, and through mobile phones is a big priority. I think the app based solution is, once you have a customer, and you've been skillful at inspiring them, then there's this kind of habit for them to want information from you, then an app becomes an interesting solution because it becomes part of a pattern. 

And as you know Michael, more and more brands are becoming successful at doing that. But I think you have to think carefully about what basis are you building that app. What is it you're solving for them and putting in an app form versus other forms of engagement. 

It becomes more of a destination, or at least offer other reasons for visiting than just commerce. Would it be fair to say a sense of community or sharing similar interests? 

Yes, it's really about helping people live the life they want to live. There's more to it than buying clothes; it's inspiring them and telling them stories, Mr. Lauren has been one of the most prolific storytellers in modern culture.  I think that's why people engage with him and engage with his brand. As you mentioned earlier, we have multiple categories that's why he's able to engage with people from seven to seventy-seven, and beyond, it's the story he's able to tell them and buying the clothes in stores, and online are ways to access the story. 

And now with digital, we can reach more people and make that story even more relevant, person by person. I think that's the key for us the power has shifted from the brand and media owners and literally into the hands of the consumer. And we need show up for them in a way that is welcome.

Your products are known for quality, meaning you can touch, feel and see the difference in craftsmanship when shopping at a retailer. Could this loss of presentation become a hurdle for a lifestyle or luxury brand when selling online? 

I believe some of the best apps we see aren't brand driven; they're platform driven. Instagram is the obvious one, but there are many others that are style leading and inspire people on how to dress. They will drive you to a commercial opportunity, and I think that's the lesson for us. It's a great privilege to work with this brand and Ralph because we have many of the things most brands need to invent. 

The State of Retail 

I remember the first time I walked into your flagship store on Madison; the overall experience went well beyond merchandising.

Right, well that was very intentional. At the time that area wasn't like it is today, the company made a conscious effort to go there and invest. It was Ralph's way of saying there's another way to look at life. It was a way of living not just a way of dressing, the finesse and attention to detail around everything from the carpet, to the music, to the scent, art, and vintage items on display, his way of saying this is now accessible to you. It was joyful, not frivolous and I think people seek that more and more now.

He created theater,  around items that were practical. Our challenge now is to say how do we do this in the digital world? There are things to be done around content with media. Sharing our story, and engaging our customers. 

     

 

 

Retail in America is struggling. But it's alive and vibrant in other countries noticeably many cities in Asia especially China and South Korea. 

That's correct, and if you go department stores in London for example, people go to Selfridges or Harrod's for the experience the same way people go to Apple stores. There's an experience there that's unique, and it's not just about theater it's about something that's useful and serves a purpose. It's real, and I don't believe retail is dead, but you do have to think just as hard about what that experience needs to be as you do about the other touch points for your brand.

What's the reason I need to go there? And I think a lot of retailers became complacent; you have to be intentional and make choices if you want to compete. 

Where do these choices begin? 

It all begins with the consumer you have pick which consumer you can best serve. There's no such thing as the luxury consumer; I think you dress for your lifestyle and people have different needs and desires. 

If we understand that then our brands need to be smart in ways of reaching consumers because they all represent something slightly different. The main thing is once you start with the consumer, it's then how are you going to reach them. We can then be very clear about which products and categories to develop and how we're going to target them. So we don't start with the brand, which can become insular, we begin with the consumer.

We're lucky we have a vast number of distribution channels we just need to be clear about how we're using each channel. 

What do you see as Ralph Lauren's most significant opportunities going forward? 

Well, we have a clear strategy and one articulated in our earnings calls. Our opportunity is on quality sales; we're focused on driving distribution and making sure we execute better than before. But, I think it's about elevating the brand. 

And from my perspective, that's about a real focus on the quality of our products, and how we reach the different consumers, we want to target. And the role of each channel and I believe that's something we can get better at and we will be relentless in our focus. We know this is a very consumer-first approach and we work with our retail partners to make sure we're better at understanding what they want and what they need. 

We're also aware that we are a little bit imbalanced. But will always work through the lens of a better understanding of the consumer, the quality of the sales and being very clear about how we distribute and use those channels. 

What excites you most about moving forward? 

Lots of things I don't think there's only one.  The talent here is astounding, and there's secret sauce, people here know this brand as though it's been in their family, experts with instinctive knowledge of what makes this name great. Combined with a number of new people up and down the business across different roles real experts in the areas of opportunities. I think it's that combination that makes it unique. The other thing is we're very clear about where the opportunities lie, and we can move very quickly which is one of the advantages of being a well-known brand, a business that has significant resources.

Fast-fashion retailers have baked in supply chain advantages to their overall go to market strategy.  Does speed to market play a significant role for a global brand like Ralph Lauren?

You're right, it does, but I think there are two ways to deliver it. There are some amazing companies out there. And their operational model is almost their marketing model. And there's genuine newness in their stores in weeks, incredible.

Now, do we need to get that fast? I don't think so; we've done a tremendous amount of work in the last few years to be much more competitive operationally. But marketing needs to understand they have a role to play there's a new cadence in the market. You have to be in the market and engaging in relevance and meaning, so it's more about bundling up products and bundling up ideas, we can use communication to drive the drumbeat, connection, and interest.

We've done that successfully with our recent fashion show and will continue to do it. I think that's how you get people interested and engaged. Not relying on the old model of seasonal delivers, that doesn't work no one operates like that anymore. We've got to find incentives more than discounts and promotions by getting our customers excited about what we have. Marketing has a huge role to play there in addition to keeping the products fresh and exciting. 

Digital also enables people to dig deeper into whatever it is they're interested. For fashion that's a great opportunity. We've seen some of our competitors do that successfully. Clothes are important to a lot of people; it's part of their identity, who they want to be with and where they may want to be in their life. People take great pride and spend a great deal of time thinking about how they want to present themselves. 

About * Ralph Lauren Corporation

Ralph Lauren Corporation is a global leader in the design, marketing, and distribution of premium lifestyle products, including apparel, accessories, home furnishings, and other licensed product categories. 

Products & Brands

The Ralph Lauren portfolio of premium lifestyle products includes four categories; apparel, home, accessories, and fragrances. The company's brand names, which include Polo by Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Ralph Lauren Collection, Black Label, Blue Label, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, RRL, RLX, Ralph Lauren Childrenswear, Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren, Chaps and Club Monaco. The company does business in three business segments; Wholesale, Retail, and Licensing.