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Did Reitmans benefit from Meghan Markle’s royal romance?

Meghan Markle is shown in a Feb.15, 2012 file photo in West Hollywood.

Matt Sayles/The Canadian Press/AP

As much as women have fought to be recognized for their own accomplishments – and not just for looking glamorous or marrying well – the fairy-tale ideal of a princess who gets her royal man (and looks good doing it) continues to captivate. So like it or not, the star power of actress Meghan Markle has multiplied since her relationship with Prince Harry became public last year.

But one brand that will no longer hitch itself to that rising star is retailer Reitmans (Canada) Ltd.

Ms. Markle recently shut down her lifestyle website, called The Tig, and has ended her marketing partnership with the retailer.

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Both of those moves have been used by the British media in recent days to support rumours of an impending engagement for the couple.

The company says that its contract with the 35-year-old actress had been set to expire in December regardless of other factors, and that it did not attempt to negotiate a renewal.

"We parted as planned and on very good terms," said Monique Brosseau, vice-president of marketing and visual presentation for Reitmans. "We were very happy with this partnership. She was a great partner."

Reitmans named Ms. Markle a "brand ambassador" in August, 2015, long before she was an A-list name. The actress, known at the time for her work in the television series Suits, appeared in ads for the retail chain and also lent her name to "capsule collections" of women's apparel. The latest of those launched with fortuitous timing: It was released last November, within days of the first reports that Ms. Markle was dating the prince.

"It did definitely generate some interest, yes," Ms. Brosseau said, though she would not say whether the greater exposure for the brand led to a spike in sales. "It's hard to tell exactly how much impact she had because she was in this relationship. We had started so many initiatives to update our brand and we were already having success. … It's hard to assess what part of the marketing mix has the most impact."

The marketing deal with Ms. Markle was part of a larger strategy for Reitmans to revitalize what had become a tired brand, and to attract younger customers – without alienating the older women who still make up a core target market for the apparel retailer.

"I'm so excited to be part of this re-energizing of Reitmans, and to be the face of a brand," Ms. Markle said in a statement in 2015, at the outset of the deal. "I'm often asked what I wear both on and off camera, and the answer is that it's a blend of a few luxury items mixed with classic and trend driven pieces that don't break the bank. Reitmans is perfect for affordable and chic pieces that I absolutely love."

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The corporate strategy has also included refreshing the look of its stores, and attempting to follow trends by launching an active wear brand called Hyba. It has also launched a new house brand called Willow & Thread, focusing on work wear. And, like other retailers, the company has been reducing the overall number of brick-and-mortar stores to cope with a shift of shopping habits toward e-commerce.

Its performance has been improving: Its most recent quarterly report saw sales rise 2.2 per cent to $245.6-million in the three months ended Oct. 29, even as the company closed 81 stores in the year prior. E-commerce sales rose 40.1 per cent. Reitmans has the largest number of stores in the company's portfolio – more than Penningtons, Addition Elle and RW & Co.

"It's become harder and harder to compete on the basis of having the most number of stores, because people can get product everywhere," said Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. "It really came down to, how do they come back to the relevance of the brand for the average Canadian consumer."

Over the course of the partnership with Ms. Markle, the stores did see an increase in younger customers, Ms. Brosseau said. Part of the actress's appeal was that it was "hard to say what age she is," and though she is very beautiful she was also "relatable," she added.

In ads, Ms. Markle would show off outfits and declare, "It's Reitmans. Really" – the insinuation being that the clothes looked much more fashionable than the brand had been known for, or that their lower price point would suggest. The company may work with brand ambassadors again in future, Ms. Brosseau said, but they would have to seem accessible to the average customer.

"I wouldn't say fashion-savvy, but stylish – someone we look at and say she looks good not because she wears big brands, but because those people know how to pull an outfit together. Very accessible people that represent the diversity of people across Canada," she said.

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Reitmans' newest ad campaign, which launched on Monday, features a diverse group of women hunting through their closets.

"It will be important to keep this legacy brand injected with energy in order to remain successful," said Susan McGibbon, a retail consultant with Three Sixty Collective in Toronto. "The challenge going forward will be who best represents the 'Reitmans woman' and how does that new brand ambassador accomplish making its core customers – real women – feel comfortable while at the same time attracting younger, more fashionable shoppers to shop at Reitmans, not just Zara and H&M."

Should the tabloid rumours prove true, however, Ms. Markle will prove to be a loss as a brand spokesperson. The brand is striving to be relatable, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, an aspirational figure can be incredibly valuable. London-based consultancy Brand Finance has estimated that the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was responsible for £152-million ($254-million) in added sales in 2015 for clothes that she was seen wearing or other brands she was known to buy. According to the firm, an advertiser would have had to spend £114-million ($190-million) in 2015 to buy the kind of exposure that members of the British Royal Family get for free through news coverage – such as, for instance, rumours of another royal wedding on the horizon.

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About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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