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Does Ralph Lauren PBS sponsorship hint at luxury opportunity in TV?

September 12, 2012


Although lifestyle label Ralph Lauren is experimenting with television through its first network sponsorship, luxury marketers should be cautious in entering the mass marketing channel.

Ralph Lauren is now a corporate sponsor of Masterpiece, the drama series on PBS that boasts TV programs such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock. There seem to be parallels between the elements of the show, its viewers and the Ralph Lauren brand that will help the label succeed on the channel, but luxury apparel marketers in general should not be so quick to begin a TV sponsorship unless they are willing to invest in it over time, experts say.

“Very few fashion brands will follow Ralph Lauren into TV marketing,” said Al Ries, chairman of focusing consultancy Ries & Ries, Roswell, GA. “While a relatively small budget will work in print or radio, TV is different.

“To make an impact on TV, you need a large budget and a long-term commitment to the medium,” he said. “Presumably Ralph Lauren will follow its PBS sponsorship with additional TV spending.

“If not, it will have wasted its money on a one-time event.”

Mr. Ries is not affiliated with Ralph Lauren, but agreed to comment as an industry expert.

Ralph Lauren declined comment.

Masterpiece is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston.

Targeted TV

Ralph Lauren's first sponsorship messages will air Sept. 30 during the show, "Upstairs Downstairs."

The label is creating different spots to be shown during each show in the Masterpiece series. These include Wallander, Upstairs Downstairs and the third season of Downton Abbey.

The brand chose to partner with PBS’ Masterpiece since both represent the same qualities, per Ralph Lauren.

In fact, the label claims that Ralph Lauren takes inspiration for his collections from Masterpiece series "Downton Abbey" and "Upstairs Downstairs."

Masterpiece has seen high viewership recently, according to PBS.

Seventeen million viewers watched the second season of Downton Abbey. Also, the viewership for Masterpiece’s 2012 season increased 27 percent over 2011.

Viking River Cruises is also a corporate sponsor of Masterpiece. Funding is also provided by public TV viewers and contributors to The Masterpiece Trust.

“The Ralph Lauren brand has been associating itself with Downton Abbey through runway looks and magazine editorials lately, so the Masterpiece sponsorship feels like a natural extension of that,” said Jordan Phillips, founder and director of Lure of Luxe LLC, New York.

“The strategy behind the sponsorship is probably to help solidify this association and keep the conversation going about Ralph Lauren’s blue-blooded aesthetic,” she said.

Does luxury fit?

Ralph Lauren will likely succeed in its PBS sponsorship due to its status as a mature, storied brand, per Mr. Ries.

“Ralph Lauren is a brand that is growing up,” Mr. Ries said. “Early on, most fashion brands appeal primarily to younger people who are looking for something new and different.

After a while, a brand grows up and becomes established as a leader in its category,” he said. "Younger people move on and look for the next Ralph Lauren.

“Now that Ralph Lauren is a dominant fashion brand, it is looking for additional ways to provide leadership credentials and its sponsorship of Masterpiece on PBS is a way to do exactly that.”

Ralph Lauren seems to be testing the waters, a move that other luxury marketers should follow if they want to try TV advertising.

“What Ralph Lauren is doing right is to move into TV in a relatively small way,” Mr. Ries said. “TV gives the brand a way to differentiate itself from the hundreds of other luxury brands, but it will take a lot of money and enough time to make the effort worthwhile."

The choice to advertise with Masterpiece will probably help Ralph Lauren target some high-net-worth consumers, per Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, Stephens, PA.

In addition, the partnership keeps with the traditions of the brand, which is something that luxury brand sponsorships across all channels should achieve.

“As a dedicated Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mystery fan, I think the Viking Cruise promotions are spot on for the higher-income and more educated viewers that are drawn to the shows,” Ms. Danziger said.

“I hope Ralph Lauren continues that tradition, especially showing the types of people who are likely to take a river cruise on Viking in Ralph Lauren fashions – not super-skinny 20-something models with bad attitudes,” she said.

Furthermore, Ralph Lauren’s TV placement was strategic in that it is highly-targeted, per Lure of Luxe’s Ms. Phillips.

Luxury brands should beware of the mass reach of TV, and only spend money on the channel if they are ready for a long-term investment.

In addition, integrated product placements and viral video might be used to leverage the sponsorship so that Ralph Lauren reaches its target audience.

“Luxury apparel and accessories brands need to be wherever their current and potential clients are, and this includes high-end TV programming,” Ms. Phillips said. “I am not suggesting that a luxury brand begin advertising during American Idol alongside mass-market brands, but participating in the occasional TV sponsorship and product placement opportunity is wise, as long as the show is in line with the brand’s image and target audience.

“Unlike in the mass market, where promoting a brand everywhere is crucial to winning and keeping market share, luxury brands should not be ubiquitous,” she said.

“If a luxury brand decides to try a TV sponsorship, the key is to choose a niche program, just as Ralph Lauren has done with its support of Masterpiece.”

Final Take
Tricia Carr, editorial assistant on Luxury Daily, New York