Lacoste: Renaissance of a Reptile

NEW YORK When René Lacoste designed his first line of short-sleeved, collared tennis shirts in 1933, the French tennis great, nicknamed “the Crocodile” for his tenacity, had no idea he was siring a brand that would grow into a global fashion statement. But by the 1970s, the crocodile-emblazoned polo shirt was well on its way to becoming a nearly ubiquitous component of the preppy dress code, not to mention golf club courses everywhere. By the 1990s, it had become something of a preppy joke. To restore its luster as a luxury must-have, the company, according to a company rep, cut back on licensing deals, opened upscale boutiques and, more recently, went back to its roots with an ad campaign starring a tennis superstar.

In the ’80s, the privately owned French company learned that being ubiquitous has its downside. Lacoste shirts started filling the racks and shelves of mass U.S. retailers such as JC Penney and suddenly the shirts that symbolized affluence and high-brow style were absolutely everywhere.

To rectify this, Philippe Lacoste, René’s grandson, began the arduous process of reclaiming the brand and returning it to relevance. In January 2002, Lacoste hired Robert Siegel as CEO, and the executive was instrumental in resurrecting the brand’s luxe status by buying back various distribution licenses and opening boutiques in locations including Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.

Lacoste also undertook an aggressive strategy of product expansion, diversifying from polo shirts to ladies apparel, shoes, fragrances and leather bags. In fact, a majority of the company’s sales are now derived from other products vs. clothing, according to the representative, who says what’s important today is “the Lacoste experience.”

But what turned the brand into one with buzz came in April 2005, when the company announced a sponsorship deal with tennis pro Andy Roddick, one of the hardest-hitting players on the men’s circuit. (Lacoste helped turn around his image, as well. Before the deal, Roddick, who is from Nebraska, had worn John Deere hats and had trouble finding socks that matched.)

“Roddick translates across the board,” says Lacoste’s representative. “He’s got an all-American appeal.”

Roddick, and his ongoing success on the court, have been huge for Lacoste in the U.S., per the company. His line, with its lively colors and bold designs represents Lacoste’s current strategy of attracting new generations of brand devotees. That strategy can also be found in the company’s promotion on Second Life this past spring, for which it “casted” Second Life avatars to be models in a virtual fashion photo shoot, with winners posted in an online gallery.

“Lacoste is being very smart about harnessing online word of mouth,” says Bill Balderaz, president of Webbed Marketing and the author of a blog on marketing buzz at “Companies like Lacoste are empowering and encouraging consumers to help spread the word online about their brands.”

Which, of course, is something else René Lacoste didn’t foresee back in 1933.