Brand of the Week: Ralph Lauren & HBCUs Collaborate
You’re probably familiar with the Ralph Lauren “Polo”, the original collared shirt, embroidered with the classic emblem of the polo player on a horse. It's a real icon of American tradition and culture.
Ralph Lauren encapsulates the classic “American Dream”, alluding to traditions and aspirations for education, prosperity, and family tradition. But, in an era where age-old traditions, nonetheless American ones, are being re-examined, you may be wondering… what made Ralph Lauren worthy of this week’s spotlight?
It could be easy for Ralph Lauren to pivot its branding into today’s TikTok “Old Money Aesthetic” showing generational and overall exclusive wealth & wellness…
Instead, Ralph Lauren’s branding today depicts “Timelessness” reframed. The brand is conscious that its timelessness depends on how sustainable its actions are, socially and environmentally. Through several strategies, the brand includes, celebrates, and rewards people in its network. One of these social initiatives this year which demonstrates mutually beneficial, conscious collaborations was their partnership with Morehouse & Spelman Colleges.
Back in April 2022, I saw a building in DC covered with a beautiful portrait of a group of black students in classically collegiate, prestigious dressing. While it was honestly unclear to me at first that it was Ralph Lauren’s ad, Tradition, Achievement, and Power were clearly conveyed.
The aspirational narrative behind Ralph Lauren’s brand this time centered on and celebrated black communities, successes, and overall values.
“Through connection with Morehouse & Spelman, we found that their heritage and values closely resembled our own, including a profound sense of community; dreams, and pursuits of excellence; a commitment to inspiring and enacting meaningful social change; a devotion to the compassion for and service of others; and of course, a deep legacy of timeless dressing and sartorial traditions.”
– a Ralph Lauren spokesperson to the Atlanta Black Star
“This collection is really a return to our roots. These are clothes that are inspired by a time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, when Spelman and Morehouse were in their heyday, when celebrated graduates in the history of the United States and the history of the world were attending our colleges, and when fashion and style were very much a part of our traditions”
– Dr. Cheryl Finley
This collection represents several Black traditions that have continued through time. In fact, it very much embodies Morehouse’s traditional “Five Wells”: Well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, and well-balanced.
It depicts education as a means of knowledge, community progress, and empowerment, and displays the tradition of using demeanor and fashion as acts of resistance – calling for respect, honor, and dignity. These traditions reflect ways of overcoming systemic barriers to the community’s belonging and success — overall, showing ways to succeed & achieve.
In fact, Ralph Lauren introduced this collection by highlighting the achievements and contributions of the Black community to the reality of the traditional “American Dream” narrative:
“This special collaboration with the students, the faculty, and alumni of Morehouse and Spelman colleges, two esteemed institutions attended by our own employees extends the authenticity of our brand heritage, writing untold chapters in our storytelling. Our portrait of American style and our vision of the American dream would be incomplete without Black experiences like these” - Ralph Lauren
The collection was designed by two Directors at Ralph Lauren, James Jeter and Dara Douglas, alumnae of Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Not only was their creation an achievement, authentically representing the legacy of HBCUs, but also is the resultant commercial and financial partnership with the universities going forward.
As mentioned in a previous OMTM Brand of the Week, esteemed American universities have become ultimate symbols of power and legacy. Specifically, Ivy League schools have been the mainstream standard for prestige – their strong, connected network of individuals, financial backing, and, of course, classy, “preppy” garb with embroidered varsity-like lettering and institutional motifs.
The American university motifs in the campaign enable HBCUs to share the same prestige and reputation traditionally only depicted by Ivy League schools.
After hearing all of this, are you now wondering why Ralph Lauren should be in the spotlight rather than Spelman & Morehouse Colleges? Well, if so, thanks for asking.
My answer is that it should not be a trade-off, and the success of this collaboration lies in how both parties benefit from it.
But Ralph Lauren is in the spotlight today ultimately because this initiative is an example for other corporations, in authentically collaborating with, supporting, and empowering communities in their audience.
These collaborations present brands with an opportunity to create their own “timelessness reframed” through sustainable, mutual, values-based successes. With this in mind, consider the following thought-starters:
How can your brand authentically, reciprocally collaborate with people and communities in your audience to uplift your brand?
What are occasions in your brand strategy in which you should consider shifting the spotlight? When can you hand over the microphone to someone in your audience?
In the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle spaces, how can you honor and represent the people and communities that have built the culture of expression surrounding your brand?
From Human to Human,