Decoding the Digital Strategy Behind Ralph Lauren's Show

Ralph Lauren’s Autumn 2017 fashion show, taking place at 7pm this Tuesday at a classic-car-filled garage where the designer keeps more than 60 of the rarest automobiles in the world, is one of the most anticipated events of the New York season. Only 300 industry guests will be escorted upstate to a museum-like space outfitted in stainless steel and halogen lights, where they’ll watch a shoppable runway show — featuring both men’s and women’s looks for the first time — followed by a formal dinner featuring top menu selections from the designer's own New York City establishment, the Polo Bar. Whether they're gleaming-car buffs or not, it's slated to be quite the evening for those in attendance.

Creating these kinds of rarified experiences around runway shows has become more commonplace on (and off) the fashion week calendar. But for Ralph Lauren — the king of the “lifestyle” brand concept — the key to success will be digital amplification, especially as the goal is to convert spectators into shoppers.

“We are all aiming to grow the business again,” says chief marketing officer Jonathan Bottomley, who joined the company as its first-ever chief marketing officer in April 2017 after a brief stint leading strategy at Vice’s in-house creative agency Virtue. “The role of marketing is to create a real sense of immediacy and currency around the brand and the product that we have to sell, and to create that with a new audience — one that’s going to help us grow.”

In order to maximise the impact of what is undoubtedly a sizable investment, the Ralph Lauren team is rolling out 24 hours of behind-the-scenes content on Instagram Stories starting at 7pm on Monday evening. At the top of each hour, the brand will release new content: a mix of fresh footage — including an inside look at show prep — and archival imagery that will help set the mood and stir up some buzz. After all, the endgame is to get as many people as possible to watch the show, which will be broadcast on Instagram Live, as well as on RalphLauren.com and the websites of select media partners, on Tuesday night.

The social platform where most of this interaction will take place? Instagram. And more specifically, Instagram Stories, where more and more brands are gaining traction. The platform, which claims a total 700 million users worldwide, says that 250 million users every day tap the "Stories" feature, which offers a reel of quick-hit images and videos that prompt the user to swipe instead of scroll.

The potency of Instagram Stories lies in its casual nature: The Facebook-owned platform says that people using Instagram Stories are more likely to click through on that feature than on a specific location or hashtag. It has also helped to increase average time spent on the app: Users under the age of 25 — aka, Gen Z — spend more than 32 minutes a day on Instagram, while those over 25 — millennials and beyond — spend more than 24 minutes a day. While Snapchat remains popular among younger consumers, it has lost market share to Instagram in the past year, making the latter's ROI feel more tangible.

In an August 2017 report aligned with Instagram Stories’ one-year anniversary, Instagram released data that named Dior, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Louboutin as the fashion brands with the highest engagement on the feature. Edging into that top tier is important to Ralph Lauren, given that every piece of the autumn collection will be available immediately to purchase.

Several designers have abandoned the much-debated “see now, buy now” concept, but Ralph Lauren has carried on. The choice underscores the company's commitment to increasing its direct-to-consumer business, with plans to reduce its wholesale presence in department stores by 20 to 25 percent, instead focusing on “high-ROI” concessions — or leased spaces within department stores that are directly operated by the brand — 26 of which it has added in the past year.

The Instagram push will be supported by media buys on that platform and also Facebook, as well as with traditional media partners including Condé Nast and Hearst. However, Bottomley is quick to point out that “It’s not just a media event,” noting that there will be live events at several of the company’s directly owned stores over the next few weeks, as well as an installation at the retailer’s 888 Madison Avenue flagship, which will “keep the excitement going.”

Fashion shows, when treated as a major public spectacle rather an intimate industry event...can also create more impressions than any other event throughout the year.

Indeed, fashion shows, when treated as a major public spectacle rather an intimate industry event, can cost well into the millions of dollars to produce and market, but they can also create more impressions than any other event throughout the year. (In its 2017 fiscal year, Ralph Lauren spent $220 million on advertising and marketing expenses, down about 21 percent from $280 million the year before.)

Consider the consumer engagement windfall top spenders experienced from the 2018 Cruise collections. At Dior, for instance, were were more than 124,000 mentions of the brand on key social platforms Twitter, Facebook and Instagram during the week of its Los Angeles runway show this past May. The hashtag #DiorCruise had over 145 million impressions, with #DiorCruise2018 adding 17.4 million more, according to data from Brandwatch, an analytics firm.

Even Ralph Lauren’s more traditional fashion shows over the past few seasons have offered a boost, spurring significant spikes in earned media value (EMV) during its February 2016, September 2016 and February 2017 shows, generating $4.6 million (36 percent of the month’s overall EMV), $2.1 million (21 percent) and $1.5 million (14 percent), respectively, according to analytics firm Tribe Dynamics.

Whether or not this season’s auto-show extravaganza will boost that EMV — or generate actual sales — remains to be seen, but expect more gate-opening efforts from the company as it continues to implement its turnaround plan, which has thus far included job cuts, reduction of inventory and store closures, all in the name of streamlining the business. In the first quarter of its 2018 fiscal year, net sales decreased 13 percent to $1.3 billion on a reported basis.

“As the power, both in terms of media and in terms of shopping, has moved away from brands and retailers and into the hands of the consumer, we know we need to show up in the places that are already important to them,” Bottomley says. “It’s more and more difficult to go and buy attention and interrupt people. We’ve got to understand what they want and what’s interesting them and re-imagine that in a way that’s surprising and delightful.”