‘Made in America’ would have avoided Ralph Lauren’s self-inflicted crisis

Right about now, Ralph Lauren is wishing it confined its sports expertise to polo.

Olympic sports caused the American clothing giant an enormous headache. As too often is the case in crisis, this one’s a self-induced migraine.

What happened? Contracted to design, make and supply the 2012 U.S. Olympic team’s uniforms, the company outsourced their actual manufacture to China. Doesn’t matter that most of what we wear — from Ralph Lauren, Nike, and a litany of others — is sewn offshore.

These were the U.S. Olympic team’s uniforms; the red, white and blue. If anything should say “Made in America” on the tag, it’s these, as my colleagues Eric Mower, Sandy Gingerich and Carrie Grandits noted incredulously. Now Ralph Lauren faces a boycott. [Wasn’t there a time when only the Olympics themselves faced boycotts?]

Facebook is awash in angst and anger. Ralph Lauren’s hair went gray overnight. [OK, not quite]. Six U.S. Senators snagged the spotlight to sponsor legislation requiring the uniforms be made here, but it was obviously too late with the Olympics weeks away — too late to everyone but the six self-aggrandizing pols.

The company, predictably, seized at any vine on the slippery cliff it was careening down by saying it will make them in America in 2014. Whew. Do over.

“For more than 45 years Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design rooted in the rich heritage of our country. We are honored to continue our longstanding relationship with the United States Olympic Committee in the 2014 Olympic Games by serving as an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States and has committed to producing the opening and closing ceremony Team USA uniforms in the United States that will be worn for the 2014 Olympic Games.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much as mealy-mouthed a statement as one could concoct. It should instead apologize for its stupidity and insensitivity and acknowledge the mess it caused. Something like this:

“Ralph Lauren made a serious mistake in not using American manufacturers to produce our U.s. Olympic uniforms. This decision was ill-advised and will be reviewed. Our uniforms in 2014 will be American-made. As most consumers know, the clothes they purchase and wear are often made in lower-cost offshore plants. This is a reality of our industry. Ralph Lauren employs more than [pick the number] people in America and is committed to those workers. But today we failed those workers with this choice and we apologize to them and our loyal consumers.”

Why? Because you can walk around with a black eye for the next year, allowing your company to reside in the U.S. Manufacturing Hall of Shame; or, you can admit your error in judgment, take your licks and move on.

As a Duke business professor pointed out in AdAge, Ralph Lauren intended to save money on the uniforms’ manufacture, and gain stature and reputation points [from the Russian judge] in the reflected glow of America’s love of its Olympic heroes. But what it hoped to gain is now lost because it cut corners on cost.

Media pointed out that other U.S. team uniforms were designed or made by non-American companies. But Ralph Lauren did not have to make 530 team uniforms in China. It sells millions of clothing articles a week. And someone should have thought out loud about what would happen if it got “caught.”

Apparently, no one did. Or, at least, no one listened to the smartest woman in the room that day. Odd, as Ralph Lauren’s son, David, is senior VP of marketing and communications. He’s also married to President George H.W. Bush’s granddaughter, Lauren. [You can’t make this stuff up; she probably kept her maiden name].

Hard to imagine someone didn’t listen to the boss’s son, or that he wouldn’t be aware of the political consequences of this decision.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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