Tommy, Polo, and the Casual Uniform

The Tommy and Polo brands need absolutely no introduction to dedicated followers of fashion. Defined, refined and sometimes maligned, both are icons of urban affluence and sure-fire omnipresents in the well-appointed wardrobes of ambitious corporate climbers. Indeed, Messrs Hilfiger and Lauren, with their identical choice of target markets and relentless pursuit of casual style, appear to have condemned themselves to compete with each other in perpetuity.

So how is this battle of the brands unfolding on the web?

At first glance, the Polo and Tommy Hilfiger websites appear remarkably similar. Both have neutral aesthetics, each gently decorated in conservative pastels and augmented by tasteful shots of the current catalogue. Both have very functional design platforms too, with easily navigable layouts and an unashamed focus on online shopping and discounting that just a few years ago would have been completely unthinkable.

The synergies continue even further with both companies enhancing their respective propositions by adding a customizable twist to their mercantile activities and proving to potential customers that exclusivity is still possible in a market where mass standardization is no longer completely acceptable. The end result is so close that you could probably be forgiven for thinking that Ralph and Tommy have weekly meetings at Starbucks to review Polo's "Create Your Own Collection" and the "Tommy Hilfiger Custom Design Site."

In fact, neither brand can claim bragging rights in terms of innovation because of all the similarities. So with both sides keeping an obvious eye on each other and neither wanting to be seen as radical, just where is the point of differentiation? Well, it revolves around the concept of intrinsic brand value, and the edge goes to Ralph Lauren.

The fundamental difference between the companies' websites is that while Tommy has concentrated on delivering what he believes his customers want, Ralph has gone one step further and attempted to nurture an online community that focuses on the emotive subject of brand association, and he does it very well through the Polo "Entertainment" section.

Sure, Tommy can claim that his mission statement evangelizes the "Tommy Spirit," and that he is pursuing the American Dream, but that's not going to live with a quarterly magazine, an online TV channel and a travel club, all of which are brim full of content and poignantly used to reinforce the fact that once you buy Polo, you are very much part of the family.

From culture to catwalk, Polo's "Entertainment" section uses audio, video and flash animation to strikingly good effect. The subsequent development of an online community comes as a bonus side effect that can only promote brand loyalty if managed the right way.

Polo is presently a neck in front of Tommy in the online stakes. But with so many similarities between the two brands, maybe a merger will eventually be in the cards, making Tommy and Ralph the fashion world's version of Statler and Waldorf. It certainly would be an endearing image, the two stately gentlemen hanging over the balcony at a society dinner, sipping champagne and heckling the fashion industry's wannabes.

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