The response from Ralph Lauren to the uproar about it making the U.S. Olympic team’s outfits in China is hollow, but so is the controversy.
“For more than 34 years Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design,” its statement read, “rooted in the rich heritage of our country.” Of course, the preppie look that Lauren so brilliantly knocked-off and mainstreamed was itself a knock-off of the way Brits dressed (at least those of the upper crust), and the “heritage” it embodied was that of a similarly imagined closed society of the uber-rich, primarily on America’s East Coast. The company’s polo logo is an utter creative invention that symbolizes the aspirations of social climbers; it offers the quick track to an appearance of success, since nobody who could actually afford to dress Lauren’s rich person dream wouldn’t ever have to stoop low enough to wear his gigantic icon in order to prove their status.
It’s all fake, which makes the fact the clothing is made in China is the least of its problems. I’d love to know what other designer options the U.S. Olympic committee contemplated, but it really doesn’t matter. Do we really think that the running shoes our sprinters will wear were made in the USA? How about the swimsuits or the talc the gymnasts use?
What about the food that the team consumes? Was it all grown in America? How about the fuel it uses to get to events? Is all the money invested in each competitors’ training spent on US goods and services?
So the premise upon which the entire controversy is based is foolish. Senator Harry Reid’s suggestion that the uniforms should be burned in a bonfire is really bad political grandstanding.
What deserves more scrutiny and conversation is what the fiasco tells us about the changing nature of brands.
Traditional branding theology states that logos represent brands, which implicitly means they remind us of the things we know about them. A good brand is one that has its attributes called to mind almost reflexively upon sight of its logo, the way McDonald’s or Coca-Cola do. But what happens if those associations aren’t necessarily true?
Ralph Lauren embodies American fashion (which is really British) with its American products (which are made in China) and logo (celebrating a sport invented in ancient Persia and introduced to America by English players), in the spirit of American class yearnings (in our class-less meritocracy) and traditional American values of prudence and frugality (offering merchandise priced far above the average for similarly-configured products).
I’m sorry, but what aspect of the brand is authentic? Oh yes, the fashion and class yearnings of its founder, which have propelled him to make his dream a reality and thereby join the ranks of the social elite of his branding fetish.
There’s been no crime committed here — I would consider myself lucky if I were a fraction as successful as Mr. Lauren and his company — but I wonder how many other brands are equally contrived?
Logos are representations of how businesses choose to communicate with their marketplaces, which means they communicate truly. It’s the substance or content of truth within that branding that matters, though. I suspect that the days of make-believe brands are winding down. There are just too many ways to learn about what’s really going on. Think how many consumers are now aware of just how un-American Lauren’s brand premise really is.
Its branding sure worked this time, though, as our Olympic brain trust utterly bought the fantasy of Polo. The question marketers should be asking is whether they think consumers just as stupid and, if so, would you bank your brand’s future on them staying that way?