2021 Brand of the Year: High-touch meets high-tech at Harry Rosen

How the iconic menswear retailer reset its brand for a new generation of customers.

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This week, 
strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2021 Brands of the Year. Check back throughout the week to see the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

By Will Novosedlik

Ian Rosen’s grandfather Harry Rosen built his business on paying close attention to the client.

The founder’s famous Rolodex and Post-It Notes filled with handwritten client intel – from their spouses’ names to kids’ birthdays – were powerful (albeit rudimentary) CRM tools. And its brigade of fashion advisors who know their clients’ needs and preferences – almost better than they do themselves – have no doubt carried Harry’s legacy forward. That personal high-touch element is important to the current generation. It’s what continues to set Harry Rosen apart.

But when the pandemic shuttered stores in March 2020, the brand could no longer rely on the quality of its in-store experience. So Ian Rosen and his team, ten months away from completing a digital transformation – which CMO Trinh Tham says began when Harry realized it’s core customer was aging and began courting a younger gen – pulled out all of the stops to make it happen in three. Many innovations, inspired by its in-store USP, came out of the process.

For instance, advisors would historically lay down different outfits for customers to look at instead of rifling through racks in store. So to translate that live personalized experience in the online space, Harry Rosen created a “digital lay down,” pulling items directly from its product database and emailing them to customers, who can then order online and try them at home.
Harry Rosen Inc--Masai Ujiri and Harry Rosen Team Up for HUMANIT
Herringbone is another application that digitally reimagined its client obsession, where advisors build a personal page for their customers on the Harry Rosen website. The advisor sends a link to their client with products curated to suit their personal preferences and then it’s two clicks to check-out. Herringbone performed exceedingly well during the pandemic, accounting for more than 10% of weekly online trade.

Then there’s “drop ship,” a technology that allows Harry to feature products on the website without having to carry the inventory or handle shipping. The client’s order goes directly to the wholesaler, making logistics and payment seamless. The tech has enabled the retailer to deepen its assortment and expand into other product categories, such as men’s grooming, quickly and efficiently. In 2020, these and other digital efforts resulted in a 300% increase in e-commerce sales over 2019, a trend that has continued in 2021.

Along with its digital transformation came a brand repositioning.

“The brand had enormous trust, but not with younger clientele,” says Tham, who joined Harry Rosen in late 2019. The retailer’s promise has always been to help men build confidence through how they look. But for a younger crowd, confidence might not come from wearing a suit every day. The dress code was changing, explains Tham.

“The enormous influence of technology companies with their casual, open environments and dress codes spilled over into more traditional workplaces. People were more interested in dressing casually and mixing formal with informal,” she says. (Of course the pandemic didn’t help, with WFH mandates further supercharging the trend.) Before, the brand was focused on helping men dress for business and giving them the confidence to excel in a corporate world. But that ethic is being challenged by a generation that seeks opportunities to bring a personal sense of purpose to every part of their lives.

Hairy Rosen Harry has since adjusted its merchandizing mix to respond to changing preferences, bringing in a more casual assortment of goods like sportswear, sports jackets, over-shirts and casual trousers. It also introduced a new “Set the Tone” tagline to further appeal to this purpose-driven customer.

Now, the brand’s new messaging is all about dressing with confidence for whatever you have in your day, whether it’s casual or formal, work or play, family or community-focused, says Tham. “Our mandate [continues to be] to help men feel confident, but the way we do that is by helping them feel good so they can do good,” says Tham.

To launch the new positioning, Zulu Alpha Kilo created a video series featuring interviews with Canadian icons like actor Colm Feore and chef Matty Matheson. In the videos, Feore and Matheson are asked how they “set the tone” as leaders in their field and as vituosos of their craft. The series opened with a dramatic cri de coeur performed by Canadian actor Emmanuel Kibungo.

In addition to updating Harry’s tagline and visual language, the retailer has also worked with Zulu on campaigns that helped capture a new audience. To launch the men’s grooming line, for instance, Harry changed the sign of its flagship Toronto store to “Hairy Rosen.” Prominent tastemakers posted themselves in front of the sign, producing the most engaging content ever on Harry Rosen’s social channels. The effort exceeded the reach and engagement of any previous campaign by 50% and earned over 40 million impressions from local and international media.

“We had customers who have shopped us for decades email us to let us know that we made a mistake, [others] reached out on social media asking what was going on, and some customers caught on that we were trying to tell them something,” Tham says. “Overall we all had some much needed fun with the brand.”

The stunt put the wheels in motion for a grooming launch video, part of a “Different Strokes” content series that highlighted the different ways men groom. Featuring a diverse cast, the series exemplified the brand’s desire to work with role models, not just fashion models, as a way of demonstrating its values of leadership, creativity and inclusivity.

Different Strokes - 2
Increasingly, those values are being brought to the fore. In December, the brand partnered with designer Patrick Assaraf and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri to create and promote an athleisure capsule clothing line called the Humanity Collection. Net proceeds go to Black Youth Helpline, an organization that provides crisis counselling, strategies for staying in school and support for families, schools and communities.

The collaboration inspired the brand to sign Canadian fashion designer George Sully, founder of Sully and Son and of the Black Designers of Canada, as part of its growing roster of BIPOC designers, which includes Artphere, Aller Retour, Bohten, Edward Armah and Norwegian Rain. Meanwhile, Harry continues to support Ujiri, including his Humanity Art Installation at Toronto’s Union Station, unveiled in September 2021.

Harry Rosen’s digital transformation, reimagined assortment and more relevant messaging is having a positive business impact, according to Tham, who notes that its ecommerce investments, growing sportswear, casual wear, shoe and outerwear business, as well as its expansion into men’s grooming, are helping reach a new generation of customer. “Our updated brand strategy is much more in tune with the times.” Accomplishing that in record time during a pandemic has given Ian Rosen the right to say, “It’s not your dad’s suit store anymore.”

Featured image of Masai Ujuri by director and photographer Matthew Manhire