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Ralph Lauren: brand aid

The anatomy of a gift

Rebecca Willis | March/April 2015

The main wall in the lobby of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London is covered from floor to ceiling with brightly coloured acrylic discs hanging on hooks. At first I take them to be an example of the sort of cheering-up decor to which hospitals are prone—and you must need a bit of cheering up when you step over the threshold here as a cancer patient. But then I realise that some of the discs have names written on them. There are, in fact, 366 of them, one for every day of the year including February 29th, and—for a suggested donation of £10 a month—each of them can be sponsored. People choose the dates that matter to them: the day they were given the all-clear after their treatment here or, sometimes, the day a loved one died. It is a timely reminder that donations come in all shapes and sizes, because I am here to talk to the hospital’s chief executive about its highest-profile one to date: an undisclosed but “significant” seven-figure sum which will pay for the hardware in a new clinic for breast-cancer research. I am here, to put it bluntly, to look a gift horse in the mouth.

If you didn't read a newspaper during the month of May last year, you might be unaware that Ralph Lauren made a donation to the Royal Marsden and that a party was given at Windsor Castle in his honour. Otherwise the media coverage was hard to avoid. That is not just because the heady cocktail of celebrities, royalty, frocks and serious illness is inherently irresistible to the press, but also because the Ralph Lauren Corporation, like any big multinational company and perhaps more than most, has a formidable PR machine. There are teams of people around the world whose job it is to make sure that the message gets out there, whether that message is about the latest catwalk collection, the launch of Polo womenswear, or Ralph Lauren’s many and varied acts of philanthropy.

At midnight on the day of the party at Windsor, which was for 200 guests and was hosted by Prince William, the Marsden’s president, a Google search for “Royal Marsden Ralph Lauren” returned 63,000 results. Three days later it was about seven times that (437,000). In the interim, the front pages of newspapers around the globe showed film stars wearing exquisite gowns in front of the Round Tower in the castle courtyard, and being introduced to the prince. Coverage of the event then rippled out to the weekly gossip magazines: Cate Blanchett wore, according to Hello!, “an elegant Ralph Lauren one-shouldered column dress”, while Cara Delevingne was “stunning in beaded Ralph Lauren” and Benedict Cumberbatch “was dapper in a Ralph Lauren Black Label tux”. In this 13-page photo story, the name Ralph or Ralph Lauren appeared 16 times, and that’s not counting the times he was referred to as “the king of US fashion”, “the 74-year-old designer” or “one of the richest men in fashion, with an estimated net worth of more than £4 billion”.

Then it was the turn of the monthlies. Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, was a trustee of the Royal Marsden, and she suggested Lauren when the hospital needed a sponsor for the gala dinner that Prince William had offered to host. The donation for the new clinic was to grow from this seed. Vogue ran a six-page story in its August issue with pictures of Lauren, his family and the Windsor party. And now here we are, a bi-monthly magazine, using the occasion as a case study to enquire into the nature of modern philanthropy. The life of that particular party is destined to be a long one.

It seems that everyone wins from this arrangement: the media get their fodder, the celebrities are seen turning out for a good cause and looking glamorous, the Ralph Lauren brand gets a global fashion show, the hospital gets much-needed funds, breast-cancer awareness is raised yet higher, and perhaps, even, the world gets a step closer to finding a cure.

Cally Palmer, who has been chief executive of the Royal Marsden for the last 16 years, appears in front of the wall of colourful, up-for-sponsorship discs to lead me to her office. She has a pleasant, open face and a level gaze. Her manner is businesslike without being brisk and exudes competence: if she wasn’t head girl at her school, she should have been. “The Royal Marsden has a turnover of £344m a year,” she tells me. “Three-quarters of that comes from the NHS for research and treatment, and the rest is from private care, mostly covered by health insurance, and from industry collaboration, for example, in the development of new drugs. And separately we have a long-standing charity which allows us to go above and beyond NHS standards. Quite a lot of philanthropy is devoted to research, such as the initiative with Ralph Lauren.”

The new clinic will be on the fourth floor in a part of the building that went up in flames in January 2008. Created by modernising existing labs and extending into spare roof space, it will allow the Marsden, one of the world’s five leading cancer-research centres, to drive forward its work in the treatment of breast cancer. Its goal is to identify the molecular differences between tumours, and then to develop new targeted therapies for patients. “It will help ensure,” Palmer says, “in this new era of personalised medicine, that treatment is tailored to each patient’s needs, and to their unique response to treatment.” That is necessary because not only is each type of cancer a law unto itself, and not only are there many types of breast cancer, but everyone’s cancer is particular to them and their body. Better targeting will mean better outcomes with fewer side effects. Cancer, I am starting to realise, is a couture disease.

The crucial factor here is a simple one: geography. “Where you put scientists and clinicians is incredibly important,” Palmer continues. “The key to taking science through clinical research and into patient treatment is being physically located together to generate ideas. One of the most valuable things the Royal Marsden does with the Institute of Cancer Research [its academic partner] is the ‘bench to bedside and back to bench’ strategy.” Patients have access to the latest innovative therapy in clinical trials, and the results go back to the scientists, who refine and modify them before rolling out the treatment more widely. “It’s a virtuous circle, if you like, to get research findings into service quickly and then see if you can improve them.” The Royal Marsden will build research teams and house them in the new clinic with its magnificent views over the rooftops of Chelsea and, possibly, a Ralph Lauren-designed interior. “As far as colour and style, it has to look the best it can for the donor,” Palmer tells me without batting an eyelid. “So we’ve invited them to be involved if they want to.”

Trying not to be distracted by a vision of Navajo-inspired lab coats, I wonder if there is a danger, when receiving such a widely publicised donation, that people might think the hospital doesn’t need any more money, even though in the fight against cancer it always does. “We did ask ourselves that question,” Palmer confesses, “but the opposite has been the case. A high-profile donation like this builds trust and interest. It’s attracted other US and UK philanthropists who hadn’t been aware of our work previously. It’s raised our game and it’s a validation. His profile helps us hugely. And the amount of coverage of the Windsor event has also made a difference in the interest we’ve had since.”

So I decide not to ask my cynical question about why the donation wasn’t made anonymously. It’s clear that, although the Ralph Lauren brand got publicity from the donation and from sponsoring the dinner, so too did the Royal Marsden brand—and Palmer readily admits that it is a brand. The idea that charitable giving should be discreet and unshowy is suddenly looking rather quaint and old-fashioned.

Part of the deal: Ralph Lauren and his wife Ricky (second right) meet Prince William, president of the Royal Marsden, at Windsor Castle 

Philanthropy isn't what it used to be. Not just because it’s better dressed: the whole climate of giving has changed. Whereas once appeals to our conscience consisted of a lone person with a collecting box in the High Street or an occasional envelope through the letterbox, today the doormat is piled high, to go shopping is to run the gauntlet of charity fundraisers and Big Issue sellers, and we are deluged on a daily basis with e-mails requesting our financial help. There are marathons in our cities and tele-thons on our screens. And the giving is easy: when we were children, we knocked on the neighbours’ doors to ask if they’d sponsor us to swim a mile, but now, at the click of a mouse, we can sponsor our friends’ children as they do something outlandish like row across the Atlantic (an example from real life; they raised over £300,000). And, unless all these appeals end up becoming the unconsidered wallpaper of our lives, as long as we don’t tune out completely and get compassion fatigue, all of that must be a good thing for humankind and the planet we live on.

These changes are part of the way that philanthropy now operates at big-business level. It’s more than Bank of America sponsoring the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs at MOMA, or brands plastering their names over Formula 1 cars; it is densely woven into modern existence. Rita Clifton, an international brand specialist, now chairman of BrandCap and formerly of Interbrand, explains the shift that has taken place: “Ten years ago CSR (corporate social responsibility) was about giving money to the chairman’s favourite charity,” she says. “It was an add-on, rather than being integral to corporate strategy. It was the same with sustainability. Today businesses need to show some core purpose, not just to make a profit—because they need broader stakeholder support, government support, licence to operate, and they need to attract and retain employees. And the public is very sceptical about business with a capital B, so CSR has become an integral part of it. It’s not just putting money in the hat, it’s more holistic.”

Clifton gives the example of McDonald’s, whose social and health initiatives with Ronald McDonald House Charities, although clearly doing good, did not change the fact that people had a problem with what they were doing in their business, because of obesity and low wages. “It was only when McDonald’s started to reinvent what they were about at the core, making the food healthier, raising the status of employees and sourcing more sustainably, that things began to change. They started to do things from inside out, to make people feel better, in the round, with what the company does every day.”

It is telling that she chooses an American example to illustrate her point. “In the US there’s a very different habit and history when it comes to philanthropy,” she says. “Charity balls, benefits, fundraising, are all much more prevalent, and the tax issues are very different, too—charitable giving gets more of a tax break over there. The funds raised by Harvard, for example, compared with Oxford and Cambridge, are jaw-dropping, and people’s expectations are managed from the outset.” (In 2013 Harvard raised $792m, or around £500m, whereas in the year 2012-13 Oxford, Cambridge and 134 other British universities raised £659m between them.) By chance, the week before I wrote these words, I received my first fund-raising phone call from the Oxford college I attended. Being English, I found the false bonhomie from a stranger combined with a request for money exquisitely uncomfortable. But I’d better get used to it. As with so many cultural changes, both good and bad, we are treading in America’s footsteps.

At the Marsden, Palmer has noticed this, too. “People are looking at the US model of endowments for major centres that provide global or national benefit. Philanthropy is much more structured and professionally organised and run, and it’s very disciplined now at showing the value-add for the donor.” Her vocabulary alone, peppered with terms like “value-add” and “leverage”, illustrates how the beneficiaries now have to be as financially clued up as the big donors.

As part of this whole paradigm shift, philanthropy gets used for brand enhancement. That’s not to say it is always employed cynically, although sometimes it may be, but it is at least dual-purpose. Companies want to engage our emotions and make us feel warmly towards them, because if we feel good about a product, we are more likely to buy it. Just as, in our social lives, it’s easier to have deep feelings for someone who has a moral hinterland, so we may be drawn to products that do good as well as just sell themselves. At least that is the theory. Take coffee. First it was advertised for a range of medicinal properties, then for the taste and quality of a particular brand. By the late 1980s, with the ground-breaking mini-series of Gold Blend ads in Britain, it was promoted as a facilitator of our romantic lives. Today, coffee ads tell us that “Kenco are helping young people stay out of gangs by training them as coffee farmers.” It’s good to hear that young Hondurans are being encouraged to avoid a life of crime, but it would be naive of us not to recognise that this is a feel-good marketing project as well as a humanitarian one.

Three decades ago, Bob Geldof broke the philanthropic mould with Band Aid, galvanising the compassion of the masses to help tackle famine in Africa. Today the raw energy of that event has become something slicker, more managed and more corporate. It was simply too powerful an asset for the marketing guys to ignore. Today, instead, we have Brand Aid.

Or we could call it brand-anthropy. Either way, to understand how it works, it is worth reminding ourselves what a brand is. The Design Council puts it like this: “a brand is a set of associations that a person (or group of people) makes with a company, product, service, individual or organisation. These associations may be intentional—that is, they may be actively promoted via marketing and corporate identity, for example—or they may be outside the company’s control.” So a brand is a construct in our collective consciousness. A Coca-Cola executive is reputed to have said: “If Coca-Cola were to lose all of its production-related assets in a disaster, the company would survive. By contrast, if all consumers were to have a sudden lapse of memory and forget everything related to Coca-Cola, the company would go out of business.” To maintain brand awareness, then, our memories must be constantly jogged. The logo, a recognisable symbol or shape which doesn’t even require reading-time before recognition kicks in, is the quickest way to achieve this.

It's no coincidence that the word brand comes from the mark scorched into the living hide of an animal to denote ownership. As branding is a battle for our hearts and minds, not merely our wallets, the logo needs to be seared into our neural pathways. The wearer of a brand may think he owns it, but in truth—to use the verb in its modern sense—the wearer is owned by the brand, in that the ultimate victory belongs to the business. And we now learn that big brands search Facebook for visible logos as a way of identifying potential customers. A brand and its logo gather associations over time and the business tries to make sure that these are positive and that they stick. Philanthropy is one way of doing this.

As well as making associations we also like a good story, and building a narrative is another way that brands seek to lodge themselves in our hearts. Good stories abound in the world of Ralph Lauren. For a start, his own life is a classic example of one of the seven basic plots which are supposed to exist: rags to riches, the tale of the American dream. He was born to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx in 1939, started by selling ties in New York, spawned a retail empire that spans the world, and was recently listed by Forbes as America’s 55th-richest person. His early, aspirational clothing, which borrowed from the establishment with its club ties and crested Ivy League blazers, also embodied this story of success.

“I am not just making a dress,” he writes in the glossy, A3-sized book weighing 5kg which was published to celebrate his 40th anniversary in the business, “I am writing a story. While the dress is important, it’s just one part of the story.” The whole story is the web of associations and dreams that comes with it.

Another disc on the wall: Sponsorship for the non-billionaire at the Royal Marsden Hospital

Lauren brought his famous attention to detail to these picture stories. The dogs had to be exactly the right breed of dog for the setting, lion cubs and a zebra were flown to Hawaii for a safari shoot, carpets had to be just the right amount of worn. The underlying message was always the same: if you have the right clothes, you too can be a WASP, a Western cowgirl, an English aristocrat or a privileged frat boy. “The advertising campaigns became the movies in print,” Lauren writes in the 40th-anniversary tome. His fortune is founded on his understanding of the associative power of objects. He is a consummate image-maker and storyteller. And with this pedigree, it seems unlikely that he hasn’t considered the role that his philanthropy plays in the narrative of his own life or, indeed, that of his business.The spinning of this web is assisted by merchandising, at which Lauren was both highly innovative and hugely influential. He created stores-within-stores that were miniature gentlemen’s clubs, with all the patrician trimmings, and in 1986 he transformed the Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue into his flagship: a cleaned-up, fantasy version of a stately home. When it came to advertising, too, Lauren—infatuated with the movies since childhood—used the power of narrative to revolutionary effect. With the photographer Bruce Weber, he created a series of lavish ad campaigns that ran over many magazine pages and had the look of a film set, with lots of carefully chosen props and a cast of men, women, children and animals. They didn’t just show clothes, they suggested the whole privileged world in which those clothes existed. Many fashion commentators see this as the birth of lifestyle dressing; it was certainly an attentive midwife.

"I hate when people call me a philanthropist,” Lauren says in a video released to coincide with the partnership with the Marsden, “because I see it more coming from the heart.” It’s an implicit acknowledgment that the word philanthropist has become devalued. Lauren has a long history of supporting cancer-related charities. He helped establish the Nina Hyde Centre for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington, DC, and the Ralph Lauren Centre for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem. In 1994 he mobilised the fashion world with the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign, and designed its distinctive target T-shirts. In 2000 he launched the Pink Pony campaign: a percentage of products sold is funnelled straight to cancer charities; in Britain the beneficiary is the Royal Marsden, where the new breast-cancer clinic is slated to open next year. There is a loose fit, to use an apposite term, between breast cancer and fashion—which is not to say that men don’t follow fashion or indeed suffer from breast cancer. But even if the result is brand-enhancing, the impulse does not seem to be. This is not a billionaire who locks himself away and counts his gold.

“I don’t like the philanthropist label,” he reiterates when we meet. “I don’t know how much good I’m doing. But I’ve seen both sides of life and I don’t take anything for granted. I know what it is to work your way up.”

When I ask about the roots of his charitable impulse, he replies: “I’m a great believer in parents. You watch and learn from them, you observe a certain value system. My parents were far from comfortable, they struggled, but I always had a sense of giving. And it’s easier to give when you can spare it. I really believe people are generous and want to do good. The fact is that I can just give a little more…”

Being his own marketing: Ralph Lauren with Ricky, and the bag named after her, in RL, the Ralph Lauren magazine 

We are having tea at Claridge’s hotel in London. He is perfectly camouflaged as an English gentleman in a crisp, grey suit, and he is less substantial than he looks in photos, with silver hair, kind eyes and a warm smile. He speaks in a soft, low voice, so I have to lean forward to hear him and feel as if I’m sitting at the feet of a guru, which in a way I am. His corporation has been likened to the Moonies for the near-cultish devotion it inspires in its employees. I ask him about his personal experience of cancer. “It all started because Nina Hyde, a very smart woman who was very helpful to me when I started out, told me she had breast cancer.” Hyde was the fashion editor of the Washington Post and Lauren, who’d had a benign brain tumour removed in 1987, was feeling “very emotional about sickness” at the time. She suggested they could raise some money through the fashion business, and that conversation grew into Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.

“I felt maybe there was something more I could do,” Lauren continues. “So I went to Sloan-Kettering [the cancer hospital on the Upper East Side] and there was an African-American doctor who told me how the people who lived in Harlem wouldn’t go to Sloan-Kettering, because it was too far away and they wanted to be in their own environment. I remember my mother was told she had a lump in her breast, and as a little boy I watched her be so scared and go downhill and shrivel, and it was overwhelming for her to go out of the neighbourhood for help.” Out of this grew the Ralph Lauren Centre in Harlem, where there’s someone to help patients navigate their way around, “who escorts you, so you are not alone”. Lauren speaks movingly about the causes he supports—so much so that, when he tells me about his visit to a school for deaf children, where he saw them dancing to music they could feel but not hear, my eyes start pricking. I feel he is sincere about his wish to do good.

Would it make any difference, though, if he wasn’t sincere, as long as the cash got handed over to good causes? We can never know for sure the motivation of a public figure, after all. If a prince hugs a baby, does it tell us that he likes babies, or that he wants us to think he does? Does he even know himself, after a while? That is the problem with the media age: the look of things becomes too important. Take politicians, who now have to be super-telegenic as well as run the country. If we end up living in a world where philanthropy is often a strategic but empty gesture, are we emotionally impoverished? Do we become more discerning, or terminally cynical?

As we sip our mineral water, I ask Lauren what the difference is between the man and the brand. He waves the question away as if it wasn’t worth asking: “They are the same,” he says, with his slight and endearing lisp. Since 1975, when he appeared wearing a tweed jacket, denim shirt and cowboy boots in a Saks Fifth Avenue ad for his clothes, he has often been his own marketing. His homes—a beach house in Jamaica and a ranch in Colorado, among others—appear in architectural magazines and showcase his homewares. Last year’s ad for the Ricky handbag was a portrait of Lauren and his wife, Ricky, looking like everyone’s favourite grandparents.

Back in the 1960s, when he started out as a young man with an eye-catching sense of personal style, when he was a one-man-band selling ties out of a tiny room in the Empire State Building and sewing in the labels by hand, you could argue that man and brand were indeed one and the same thing. Today, although in terms of image it may be a seamless relationship, Ralph Lauren is a global corporation employing 23,400 people. The choices of the individual can influence the share price (which last December was $182.07, close to a five-year high). When man and brand are so interlocked, such transfusion is inevitable. His support of the Royal Marsden subtly feeds into our perception of a Polo shirt. Whether it is Ralph Lauren personally, or the Ralph Lauren Corporation, or the charitable Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, that gives the money to the Marsden is a distinction so fine that it matters only to the taxman. The philanthropy, just as much as the sight of the ballboys and girls at Wimbledon in their Ralph Lauren outfits with the giant logo, is one of the many threads that together weave the fabric of our feelings about the brand.

As Cally Palmer makes clear, the Marsden shines with the stardust that Ralph Lauren sprinkles. Is the full-page Pink Pony advert in the Style section of the Sunday Times and elsewhere, which quotes Lauren explaining that it “is the symbol of our effort in the fight against cancer—to make a difference all around the world” and also gives the web address of the Royal Marsden, of greater benefit to the retailer or to the hospital? What is certain is that, when it comes to branding, it is no longer true that it’s better to give than to receive. They are both good, and whatever the intent—which will always be hard to measure—modern philanthropy is a kind of symbiosis.

The modern hospital, concentrating purely on medical needs and staffed with surgeons and physicians, began to appear only in the 18th century. These so-called “voluntary hospitals” had secular funding—Guy’s, intended for “incurables”, was started in 1721 at a cost of £18,793 and 16 shillings (around £2.5m in today’s money), which was donated by a publisher of unlicensed bibles named Thomas Guy. He had made a fortune in the South Sea Company, which was involved in the Atlantic slave trade.Hospitals aren't what they used to be, either. Anyone who thinks they’d prefer their health care state-funded and unbranded might want to remove their National Health lenses and consider the history of hospitals. In medieval Europe they were part of religious communities, with care provided by monks and nuns: some catered for pilgrims, refugees or the poor, and some for the sick. Material support came from their endowments, usually property. The emperor Charlemagne (747-814) decreed that a hospital—as well as a school and a monastery—should be attached to every cathedral built in his territory. But centuries later, with the dissolution of the monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland from 1536, the church ceased to support hospitals. It was only after direct petition from its citizens that Henry VIII handed over St Bart’s, Thomas’s and Bedlam to be administered by the City of London.

The final analysis: The Royal Marsden’s centre for molecular pathology in Sutton 

Gradually, hospitals began to evolve from centres of care to centres of education, research and training. The Royal Marsden was started in 1851 by Dr William Marsden, who had lost his wife to cancer and wanted to investigate the causes of it, classify tumours and find new treatments. Cally Palmer points out that “throughout the 160-odd years of the Marsden’s existence, philanthropy has been crucial”. The NHS, started in 1948, is a relative newcomer. As it is now stretched to the limits, it’s looking as though we may once again be dependent on philanthropy to keep Britain’s hospitals at the forefront of medical science, rather than merely coping with everyday demand.

Kings used to have the power to bestow gifts—of land, of titles, of money—and so to change people’s lives. (Charles II, whose father’s head had been cut off and who had a lot of people to thank when he was invited back onto the throne, was particularly generous.) Today, in an era of public scrutiny and accountability, royal patronage takes the form of lending a name, as Prince William has since 2007 to the Royal Marsden, and, under certain careful conditions, of hosting an event like the one at Windsor Castle. So it falls to the billionaires of industry and technology and retail to do the financial giving. Modern philanthropy is the redistribution of wealth, capitalist-style. And as with the kings of old, where the money ends up is a matter of an individual’s whim. Perhaps not so much has changed.

For much of the history of England, people believed in the healing power of kings. As late as the 18th century, monarchs practised the Royal Touch, laying their hands on their subjects to cure them of scrofula, also known as the King’s Evil. Even then, it was partly a PR exercise, to show that their reign was God-given and to shore up their new dynasties. Today it is the new-monied global aristocrats, such as Bill Gates, with his work to eliminate malaria, and Ralph Lauren—known, after all, as The King of Prep—in whom we may have to put our hope of a cure.

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