Trinh Tham, CMO of Canadian luxury men’s retailer Harry Rosen, discusses surviving COVID, marketing luxury to a younger generation, and the company’s approaches to DEI, sustainability, and purpose, in this interview with US Associate Editor Carree L Syrek.

This article is part of the February 2022 WARC Spotlight Canada series, "Themes that will influence marketing.” Read more

Key insights

  • Harry Rosen’s pre-COVID strategic brand and digital planning placed it in good stead to weather the pandemic storm, allowing the retailer to focus more deeply on the massive shift in how men are approaching the apparel and personal care market, by ensuring that customer relationships are paramount.
  • By employing “role models” instead of “professional” models for creative work, Harry Rosen is able to connect with people on a more personal level, with messaging relevant to the younger generation as well as to their oldest, most loyal customers.
  • Teaming up with Masai Ujiri, President of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Canadian menswear designer Patrick Assaraf as role models for a collaborative campaign and capsule collection, Harry Rosen leveraged their collective passion for diversity and inclusion to remind us that “there is more that unites us than divides us.”
  • Harry Rosen was built on a foundation of acceptance and purpose and prides itself as being a workplace where each employee can “truly be yourself”. This internal philosophy helped create its three-pronged approach to DEI – diversity in people and talent, being culturally sensitive, and ensuring that brand communications are representative of the diverse Canadian population.
COVID obviously upended the landscape for retailers in general, but for luxury goods, it added another layer of complexity to the mix. How did you fare?

Harry Rosen fared quite well during the pandemic, I'm not saying it wasn't challenging, …it was extremely challenging for everybody in the industry. But we were, in a way, prepared to handle the issues that we had to face during the pandemic. We did a multi-year strategic plan right before the pandemic started – and that set the tone for us to have the right things in place to handle all the challenges that were to come.

One of the big areas we focused on was our brand transformation and digital transformation. For luxury goods, there was already this massive shift towards preferences, behaviors, and trends on what men were wearing day-to-day, whether it was to work or at home, or the kind of hybrid model that was already starting to happen. The pandemic just solidified the changes that were necessary.

The casualization of the workforce had already started, but this really solidified that. But at the same time, men are still looking for ways to treat themselves, particularly in luxury, looking for quality and looking for how to put their life together. For Harry Rosen there has always been an important relationship between our brand and our customer. COVID added an additional layer of difficulty – how do you maintain those relationships with your customer when you are not able to be in person?

A lot of our customers have a dedicated style advisor or someone they've been seeing for years and years and they have this ongoing relationship. So, the challenge for us is, – how do you maintain that in a very virtual digital world, where we all had to work from home and not be able to see each other physically? So, the brand has made lots of changes to try to accommodate the different channels and touchpoints by which we reach and speak to our customers. We've now built this omnichannel digital/physical relationship with our customers, which has been a really important factor to our success.

Harry Rosen has been around for almost 70 years – how are you approaching the concept of luxury goods for a younger audience, while also maintaining that balance with your oldest, most loyal clients?

It really did start off with redefining and refreshing our brand. The Harry Rosen brand turned 68 on February 4th, so we're having this conversation right on the cusp of our anniversary. Canadians love their heritage and traditions, so we are taking a moment to celebrate the heritage of our brand, the history of the founder.

The way we've been able to connect with that younger generation is to honor the heritage of our brand, but to also become much more relevant in the way we speak, the issues that we focus on, and how to modernize the traditional values of our brand. One of the ways we've been able to do that is to connect with real people. So rather than only “models”, we work with “role models”, and these role models reflect the values and the issues that are relevant to that younger generation, as well as the existing generation of customers.

We've really tried to find a balance. Whether it's a young entrepreneur who's done very well for himself, or someone who's much more established, or someone who resonates in sports world – we have partnered with several role models who have stories to tell. We have been finding that this has been a really amazing, relevant way to connect to our younger consumer as well as our existing legacy customers.

There's a lot of focus right now on sustainability. How are you approaching that? What results are you seeing?

I’m going to take us back a step and ground us in the work we did with our brands. As I mentioned earlier, we refreshed our brand strategy in early 2020 and redefined and sharpened the articulation of what we stand for. Harry Rosen has always been a purpose-driven brand; we're all about helping men feel confident. We know that if you feel good, you can do good, and you can do better – and that's our internal mantra. We don't always have direct control over the supply chain, or the efforts that go into sustainability from the brands we buy from. But we're seeing more and more of our partner brands making plans and taking a stand on what sustainability means for them.

You've got to do what's right for your organization and your brand, because it has to come from your brand purpose. We are working on how do we take a leadership position on sustainability by ensuring that we are considering buys from some of [the brands we carry] that offer sustainable pieces. For some of them, like Zegna, where sustainability is part of the ethos of their brand, we make sure we tell those stories and then let the customers make the choice. It's all about providing these choices that reflect our brand point of view to our customers. It's about how do we buy? What are our best practices in terms of how we source not just product, but also the goods that are not for sale?

We know that our customers, particularly the younger generation, are looking for products that are sourced sustainability, or products that have considered the environment. We’re also seeing an increase in consumer sentiment overall in terms of whether or not sustainability is impacting their purchase decisions.

Taking the cues from your customers and then looking at your brand purpose/philosophy probably also applies to DEI. How is Harry Rosen or the Canadian market in general trying to solve some of these problems, knowing it’s a long road?

This hits very close to home for me. It has always been a part of our brand values: passion, inclusivity. leadership, and creativity, I would break DEI into three major areas that we focus on. Firstly, it’s about our people/talent – do we have a diverse group of team members who reflect not just our views, but our customers’ views?

From a marketing perspective, is the brand acting and behaving in a way that supports DEI? Are we communicating with the right language? Is our team up to date on the proper terminology in the program? – because it does involve a language that evolves. Are we being culturally sensitive to the real issues that are impacting people's lives when it comes to DEI?

And lastly, it’s also the way we show up as a brand, from a communications point of view. We do look at our campaigns and we do ask each other – does this feel representative enough of our customer base? And of Canada? Because one of the wonderful things about Canada is we are so culturally diverse.

Our company culture is very accepting, very open minded. My boss actually said to me, ‘Trinh, here at Harry Rosen, you can just be yourself, truly be yourself’. And that means so much. We have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council where folks from across different functional areas come to discuss, how to celebrate DEI, how to address issues, and how to be internal advisors for the organization on DEI matters.

When you're working with your agencies/vendors or anyone outside your ecosystem, how are you making sure their DEI approaches are in sync with Harry Rosen’s?

It all starts with a strategy that aligns with brand purpose. It's about writing proper, crisp, clean briefs. We take extra care and make sure we've got it right. I'm very proud of the team for a number of initiatives where DEI was at the center of the brief.

An example of this is our campaign for launching into men's grooming. This campaign was centered all around how different men from different backgrounds groom. Some of it's driven by culture, some of it is driven by physical aspects – like hair, skin tone, and type. We had unique perspectives shared by four men from different backgrounds on how they groom. It went over so well, and we learned a ton, and hopefully it encourages others to learn more about different cultures as well. We had an influencer, who's from the indigenous community, who spoke about how you never cut your hair – you only cut your hair when there is a spiritual reason. They focus more on how their hair makes them feel more confident.

I'm very proud of the collaboration we've worked on with Masai Ujiri, President of the Toronto Raptors. He is one of the most inspirational leaders when it comes to supporting diversity and inclusion in the basketball and sports. We partnered with him as one of Harry Rosen’s role models as he embodies so many different aspects of our brand, purpose, and values. It not only serves the brand purpose for both, it also delivered surprise and delight to customers.

Was this part of the campaign where you rebranded Harry Rosen with “Hairy” instead of “Harry”?

Yes! For the grooming launch, we did a fun bit where we rebranded our ourselves as “Hairy” with an “I”. We wanted to see if anybody would notice and call us out. And they did. We had lots of folks notice and we had great press coverage on it.

It was unexpected to see a brand that’s a little bit conservative take that playful leap. You’re saying, “We're going to have fun with this – Let's just take that chance.”

We had that exact conversation – we said, let's have some fun with this, and we didn't deviate far from the heritage of our brand. Harry Rosen himself used to always use humor in in our advertising, and just bring more levity to the conversation. So we actually do an ode to Harry to bring a little levity back, especially during the pandemic.

At WARC, we focus a lot about the collision of branding and e-commerce, especially when the lines of marketing continue to blur. How are you approaching that?

I love this question although I don't think there's a right answer to it. For me, I wear many different hats. Sometimes I don't even know exactly what my title I should be – I look after marketing and e-commerce at Harry Rosen. We made that deliberate decision to position marketing to include brand and e-commerce together, because those worlds have collided.

The decision to combine marketing and e-commerce came about because we wanted to make sure that the e-commerce business was growing with the digital strategy that was coming out of brand. I have a very strong counterpart on the digital side in the organization, who really understands digital from a strategic point of view and from a company-wide point of view. We were, in parallel, also looking at ways to digitize our business. You can go into our stores and have an experience with our style advisors. But you can also have done research ahead of time on our website and look for content, for advice, figure out what space you're in, what you're looking for, and be able to transact in-store, online, either partially or both.

What are some of your goals for Harry Rosen for 2022? Now that those bigger issues, like COVID, seem to be receding a little, what are you most excited about for 2022?

We’ve already had a taste of what it feels like to reopen last fall. And we saw customers come out in droves to go to weddings again, go to events, and to get back to the office. In Ontario, we’re slowly reopening and we're hoping because we've already had a taste of it, customers are going to have no issues getting back out there, albeit safely, ready to embrace life again.

We have built, what I consider a world class, integrated marketing team that is focused on understanding our customers. And we've become much closer, even though we haven't been able to “see” each other. That really does come down to ensuring that culturally our team reflects the brand and vice versa. I want to continue to inspire and motivate the marketing team here and ensure that we are looking at innovation, not just from a product lens, but also from the way we go to market.

Your career has spanned iconic Canadian brands like Bell Media, Tim Horton’s, Sobeys, and Loblaw. Are there any common threads across those companies? Any elements unique to Canada? And what can your experience in marketing across Canada teach your American counterparts?

I'm Canadian. I find Canadians so interesting in the way that we love traditions, we love heritage, we love our history. But there's this dichotomy where we also have such a diverse demographic, who bring innovative, unique, varied perspectives and tastes, to the market. It's always been so interesting to try to figure out how to bring heritage and diversity together. I feel that Canadian brands can do that. I don’t think brands have to be one or the other, you can just be Canadian – and that's just what makes us who we are. The brands I've had the honor of serving do both. It's just about embracing who we are.

One of the common challenges about marketing in Canada is we love our geography, but it does present challenges also, because there are different subcultures by geography – different demographic centers, cultural centers. As a marketer, it's – How do you be most efficient with your marketing spend and your dollars and be able to speak to everyone and just a few people at the same time. So sometimes it does present challenges, but it's also really fun because it creates a really wonderful challenge to solve for.