How To Ruin A Brand

If, like me, you’ve been following the backlash against comments by Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries, you’ll have seen how in today’s connected world that bad PR can have a huge impact on a brand. I have to admit that I have little sympathy for Mr. Jeffries and no affinity to the A&F brand at all but I do think that anyone who wants to learn exactly how to ruin a brand can learn a lot from what has happened.

The Story So Far

How To Ruin A Brand | AbercrombieFor those who have missed the story, here’s what has happened. Back in 2006 Jeffries gave a rare interview to Salon Magazine. In the interview Mr. Jeffries explained A&F’s target market by saying “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.” Jeffries’ pursuit of the ‘in crowd’ has led to the company eschewing the larger woman (they don’t make large sizes) and apparently recruiting only those considered to be ‘good looking’. The current furor stems from the re-emergence of these comments in a new book co-written by Robin Lewis, called “The New Rules of Retail”. And this has caused chaos!

Amidst a barrage of complaints, pickets outside US stores and a YouTube video imploring viewers to make A&F the fashion brand of the homeless, sales have declined 17% and stocks are off by 8%. In the middle of the maelstrom of bad publicity, Jeffries issued a qualified apology on A&F’s Facebook page suggesting his comments had been taken out of context. This prompted one reader to comment “How can ‘we don’t like fat people working in our stores or wearing our clothes’ be taken out of context? Seems pretty clear to me,” and another to write “Your CEO is an idiot”.

Three marketing lessons from Abercrombie & Fitch

Beyond the very obvious “Don’t let your CEO dis potential consumers”, there are three very powerful marketing lessons to be learned from what has happened in recent weeks:

  1. If you want to limit your sales, limit your target market – Consumer brands grow by encouraging existing consumers to use the more of the brand more often or by attracting new consumers. Mike Jeffries defends his “exclusionary” marketing strategy by claiming it is legitimate to target a specific segment in order to avoid becoming “vanilla”. But here’s the thing: A&F’s growth in the last few years is due in no small part to the fact that it is an aspirational brand. New consumers have sought out A&F clothes because they want to be associated with “the cool kids”.
    By refusing to sell XL and XXL women’s sizes, the company already excludes nearly two thirds of the US market; by suggesting that if you are ‘not cool’ you can’t wear the brand, the market is limited further. This leaves a tiny proportion of the potential market: those who are slim enough and cool enough to wear the brand. Unfortunately, I suspect that a proportion of these people will now not choose A&F for fear of being labeled a bully, so all that will be left will be skinny people who don’t care what others think about them. This is not a great platform for growth.
  2. Bad news travels really fast – Like United Airlines before it, I’m sure that the marketing team at A&F has been taken aback by how far and how fast the negative publicity has travelled. Whilst controversy is no stranger to this team, even they were probably not prepared for a global hate campaign exploding in their laps. Many brands have been encouraged to embrace ‘social’ and ‘market digitally’ seeking greater numbers of likes and shares as if these were more important than sales and profits. What we learn here is that this is a double-edged sword. Too many brands treat social channels as a one-way street and very few are effectively managing the opportunity to learn more about attitudes, behaviors and how to influence these
  3. Manage bad press effectively – A&F’s response on Facebook is risible – they continue to post images of new products and little preppy questions like “If your friends could only describe you in one word, what would it be?” as if they are ignoring the barrage of negative comments that they receive in response (in answer to the question above, one user writes “Fat. Which means I won’t get anything from your store”). Mr. Jeffries’ response to why sales are off has been to blame poor stock availability which has created further negative comment. There’s little doubt that Mr. Jeffries’ days at A&F are numbered, but it will take years for his successor to overcome the issues he or she inherits. What current and potential consumers will need to hear from A&F is how they have changed and what they are doing to make amends, not that the brand will carry on regardless.

Really effective marketers today are able to define a target market that is likely to grow rather than decline; they engage that target market by creating an experience that resonates with and re-enforces consumers’ needs and desires and they manage their brand with care and integrity. It appears that Mr. Jeffries is not one of these marketers and those of us who are can only look on in despair. If you have examples of how to get it right that you’d like to share, please feel free to post them here!