There is no global brand more authentic to the sport of polo than U.S. Polo Assn., the official brand of the United States Polo Association. Here, RLI speaks with President & CEO J. Michael Prince of USPA Global Licensing Inc., the exclusive worldwide licensor for the U.S. Polo Assn. brand, to learn more about the origins of the business and how it has achieved the significant growth and prominent market position it occupies today.
Not just a brand, U.S. Polo Assn. is an experience. When customers purchase U.S. Polo Assn. products either from a U.S. Polo Assn. retail store, a department store, independent retailer or e-commerce, they get to own a piece of the sport of polo. This is because the global brand is the only brand that is officially connected to the United States Polo Association (USPA), one of the oldest sport governing bodies in the U.S., having been founded in 1890. Meaning, revenue from the brand’s sales of apparel for men, women and children, as well as accessories, footwear, travel and home goods is used to fund the sport, professional events, intercollegiate players, sponsorships and equine welfare. The company has a 1.7 billion-dollar global retail footprint and operates more than 1,100 mono-branded U.S. Polo Assn. stores in 180 countries worldwide, which is almost 90 per cent of the countries across the globe.
‘I’m proud to say that no matter where you go in the world, there’s a good chance that you are going to engage with our brand,” explains Prince. “The brand goes where the sport goes and the sport goes where the brand goes. The connection is inseparable, not only with sports fans but also consumers.’
In 2018 the company had a record year that included double-digit growth globally. Then in 2019 the business delivered another record year and added 100 stores worldwide. In 2020, plans are in place to add a further 100 stores at a time when many companies are closing stores rather than adding new ones. To highlight their position in the market, License Global, a leading news source for the brand licensing industry lists U.S. Polo Assn. at number four in terms of global sports licensors, behind only the NFL, NBA and MLB respectively.
Prince explains that within their fleet of stores, about 85 per cent of them are full-price stores, with only 15 per cent outlet locations. These are incredible numbers given companies of this size regularly have a 50/50 split in full price and outlet stores. Within this recent round of store openings, a unique “high goal” energy concept was launched for the first time, giving even greater truth to the brand offering a consumer experience, inspired by the sport of polo.
“Customers can walk in, use a selfie station with polo equipment, try apparel and accessories on with an interactive mirror and even use VR goggles to see what it’s like to be a polo player, even just for a few minutes,” explains Prince. The first one of these stores was launched in Hangzhou, China, home to Alibaba and the tech capital of China, to beta test the store. A second one has since been rolled out in Rome, a pop-up in Rome Termini. Prince expects more “high goal” energy stores to come, and will even have some of the experiential elements in some outlet stores, an unusual move in retail. “We want every consumer to have an incredible experience with our brand, not just the ones visiting our full-price stores.”
Looking at further store growth, Africa is an exciting market for U.S. Polo Assn., in addition to the Middle East and India. As Prince explained, they are targeting the young, millennial market. One of the goals in the next few years is to become the premier international brand on the African continent.
“We are also extremely excited about the market in China. We have two licensing partners there, one is focused on footwear and the other on apparel, and they have committed to open three to five hundred stores over the next several years. I believe that based on the dynamics of the marketplace that we have the ability to be one of the most impactful international fashion and sports brands there as well,” says Prince.
In order to continue growing the business, Prince feels it is critical to focus on your core products, specifically on how you can make them better and keep them current through innovation. For example, there’s a focus on sustainable denim, which is something the team has been working on for several years. “This is an area we want to start talking about because we have taken great initiative around sustainability, but haven’t been vocal about it. That’s changing.” In addition, U.S. Polo Assn. will launch a new footwear product line in Spring 2020 with lightweight innovation components.
With five million social media followers globally, the business utilises all aspects of social media, understanding that’s how millennials and Gen Z live their lives and how they get their news and their content. “We have taken aggressive steps to build our social media following globally over the past year and it’s translating into loyal consumers. We also unveiled a new global digital site which is being rolled out in at least 15 languages to some 100 countries worldwide over the next 24 months. Both efforts support our vision and execution towards a digital transformation,” adds Prince.
Prince explains that the ethos of the company is really about U.S. Polo Assn. staying true to who the brand is. “We know exactly who we are ─ authentic, sports-inspired, youthful, vibrant and fun. We also provide the global consumer a great price-value investment through an amazing brand and great product at an accessible price. That’s so important to us!” When asked about looking forward and what challenges await the company, Prince notes, “We remain razor sharp and will pivot with the times and the needs of the modern consumer. We have a great team, and great brand execution, which means there is a lot of opportunity in front of us,” concludes Prince.