Tell a Good Story, Ralph Lauren-Style - TheStreet

CHICAGO -- Whether you've ever worn a shirt stitched with that iconic polo-player logo, you can't deny the lure of the Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) - Get Report image. Think of those ads, filled with elegant models lounging around the pool in the Hamptons, or arrayed on a stylish plaid picnic blanket with mountains rising in the distance. These idealized images may not reflect the life of the average American, but they're powerful enough to resonate all over the world.

Ralph Lauren sells its story as much as it sells clothing and home accessories; the mythology is a key to the company's success. If you find the right story for your business, it can help you compete in the global marketplace.

We all know these are tough times for retail. Just this week, MasterCard Advisors

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released figures that showed U.S. sales of clothes and shoes fell 3% in July, the eighth straight month of declining sales. So you'd think the current economy would be especially tough on upscale brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren.

Not exactly.

In an earnings report this week, Polo Ralph Lauren announced that net income increased 8% in the past quarter, to $1 billion. Although the company admitted sales of men's and women's clothing in the U.S. had fallen, that drop was offset by sustained growth in Europe. "The global appeal of our iconic products continues to expand," said Lauren in a statement.

So how does an American brand sell itself overseas? In part, by celebrating the success story of Ralph Lauren himself. Born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, he now lives a jet-set existence right out of one of his ads, with homes in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Jamaica and a ranch in Colorado. You don't have to be an American to envy him -- or to try to emulate his life.

Global Marketing

Polo Ralph Lauren also sells itself as a brand that's not swayed by trends. Sure, the company's designer collections cater to current styles when it comes to skirt lengths and the width of suit lapels. But the Polo Ralph Lauren brand makes a selling point of timelessness. By focusing on classic looks, the company can sell in France as easily as in Japan, all while staying true to its overall American image.

Ralph Lauren now has 80 stores around the world, and they all sell the same glamorous-yet-restrained lifestyle. The stores create the look of a Fifth Avenue mansion that just happens to have piles of sweaters folded neatly on top of the antique furniture.

The company has also been smart when it comes to marketing, aligning itself with events that attract an international audience. In June, Polo Ralph Lauren provided the uniforms for Wimbledon tennis tournament officials. This month, as an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team, Ralph Lauren will get worldwide coverage at the Olympics in Beijing.

What's Your Story?

So what does an international high-flyer like Lauren have to do with your small business? It's all about having a story, one that explains who you are and what your company stands for.

It could be your company's multi-generational family history. The tale of how a product was created in a basement or garage (see

Hewlett-Packard

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). A good story crosses regional and even national boundaries. Ralph Lauren is a quintessentially American brand, yet it's selling well in Europe. Why? Because that wealthy, relaxed, life-of-leisure image represents an easy-to-understand version of the American dream.

Given the current economy, many small businesses are looking overseas to expand their revenue. A compelling story and image will set you apart -- even if you don't have a house in the Hamptons.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.