Paris — Because of his tenacity and aggressiveness on the court, French tennis legend Rene Lacoste earned the nickname ''Le Crocodile'' and took to wearing a tennis shirt distinctive for its tiny alligator.
After retiring in 1933, Lacoste parlayed his tennis shirts and alligator emblem into a small fortune.
Here in France, and in many other parts of the world, the Lacoste alligator immediately became identified with French traditions of quality, good taste, and a certain snob appeal. Such was Lacoste's success on his home court that he never sought to put the alligator onto other leisure items.
But in the United States the alligator has bitten off much more. General Mills, which owns the US distribution rights to Lacoste's logo, has brashly marketed the alligator like snack food, placing it on all types of clothing.
Shedding its exclusive image, in the US Lacoste clothing is available in various polyester mixes and in all types of clothing stores, not just exclusive sports shops.
Ironically, Lacoste is taking steps in France to profit from some of these same marketing techniques in introducing a much wider product range here. This expansion is being helped by a noticeable relaxation of French formality in dress.
''We think the American phenomenon of informal dress even at work is coming here,'' said Jean Bartholemy of Montaigne Diffusions, who is responsible for Lacoste's new marketing thrust in France. ''People don't want to wear three-piece suits any more, and in fact, Frenchmen are buying fewer suits and more leisure wear.''
To capitalize on this change of taste, Lacoste has begun to produce summer and winter outfits for both men and women, Bartholemy said. They will be offered in 16 exclusive Lacoste boutiques, four of which have already opened, two in Paris, one in Lyon, and another in Nice.
The strategy, Bartholemy said, is to maintain Lacoste's designer image in France and not appear to be totally catering to the mass market as General Mills has done in America.
Lacoste has a reputation for high-quality shirts that today sell for more than $30 each in France. And Bartholemy said he sees no reason to undermine this image. ''Selling cheaper a polyester/cotton product would contradict with our quality image,'' he said.
Not only has the firm been reluctant to diversify its product lines, but Lacoste's grandchildren run it more like a private fiefdom than a modern corporation with high-power marketing and public relations techniques.
In fact, as a private company, Lacoste here releases almost no financial information and has no public affairs division. None of its directors gives interviews.
''Lacoste is not a giant sports concern like Adidas because it has worked in such a limited domain,'' explains Georges Sandeau of Energy, a consulting firm specializing in the sports market. ''They're No. 1 in tennis shirts, but that's not much.''
To change that, Bartholemy, a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is taking cues from General Mills' experience in the US. There, General Mills markets 29 color variations of the original white polo shirt, including five blues, five purples, four greens, three reds, two yellows, two whites, and countless stripes. It sells some 30 million shirts annually in America.
A boys' line was added in 1975, a girls' line in 1978, and a toddlers' line in 1979. Since acquiring distribution rights in 1969, General Mills has put the alligator on almost every kind of clothing: swimming trunks, bathrobes, socks, belts, jeans, hats, pajamas, and so on.
This strategy has paid off: Press reports show that sales were about $15 million in 1969; in 1980 they were $450 million.
Although Lacoste will not go in for that kind of variety here, it has already brought out hats, sunglasses, belts, and towels, and the alligator appears to be cropping up more frequently than ever.
To keep up this momentum, Lacoste continues to rely on the magical appeal of its unique little symbol. In France, as in America, having such a powerful logo has brought imitators. On both sides of the Atlantic there has been a proliferation of tiger, bear, penguin, and other animal-type emblems.