Why a brand universe is a killer business model
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“That’s the thing about Ralph Lauren and the worlds he creates. They are all-encompassing. No detail is spared, yet nothing feels pastiche.”
“Creating collections is about telling stories, imagining characters and how they live.”
“I have never followed architectural rules or chosen one decorative theme. I don’t love just one thing … I looked at things that made my heart race. … It’s what works. I just care if it tells a story. I’m a romantic.”
From the interview with Ralph Lauren in Financial Times’ HTSI, September 30th 2023
Ralph Lauren companies are an empire. They are also a series of mini-worlds organized in a galaxy. In business sense, this galaxy is a growth strategy where products create systems held together by the gravity of the founder and their vision.
Within one corporate galaxy, all brands, extensions, products and experiences are entry points into the founder’s universe. They are not hierarchical, as they all reflect brand values and play an equal role in bringing a brand to life.
In addition to Ralph, Armani, Martha Stewart, Kylie Jenner or Dolce and Gabbana are examples. The advantage of the galaxy model is the power of a single person at its center. This person defines the vision, ensures creative consistency and continuity of the brand aesthetics and values. (It is worth noting that persona of the creator is also the biggest liability of the galaxy brands; the founder regularly grows into an iconic figure of mythical proportions, often without a clear succession plan and challenged to keep their creativity fresh and relevant.)
Keeping the worlds of the galaxy brands together is an invented story, like Lauren’s East Coast aristocratic life (Lauren famously said, “other designers have taste, I have dreams.” In his case, there’s his own American Dream from the Bronx to the fame and riches, and the Great Gatsby dream at the center of his brand).
Galaxy brands don’t revolve around heritage, craftsmanship, or the exceptional product quality (in contrast to brands like Hèrmes, Chanel or Brunello Cucinelli). Instead, galaxy brands invent a mythical story and emphasize narrative, merchandising, and the atmosphere of the environments where this story can be lived through brand experience and products.
Ralph Lauren stores feature black-and-white photos of the old Hollywood royalty and the privileged American high-society vibe. They sell everything from Ralph Lauren furniture, bedding, decorative objects, to its many clothes labels. There are also Ralph Lauren restaurants and cafes, all meant to express the rarified East Coast lifestyle.
The Galaxy model is most often used by brands selling at an accessible price point (it is not economically feasible to have an exclusive distribution network and an accessible price point). Only by having a galaxy of horizontal brand extensions, a company can command wide distribution, a sizable advertising budget, and increased brand recognition.
Ralph Lauren built around himself a galaxy. His story is one of WASPs and cowboys, open planes and elegant ballrooms, freedom, refinement and sophistication, patina and ruggedness, timelessness and being of its time. Lauren’s galaxy is a reinvention of the American Dream.
The rest of this analysis details the key strategic and creative tenets of Ralph Lauren’s brand universe. Please choose one of the paid subscription options to access it.