Retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has been in hot water a couple times lately. In both scenarios, the company’s merchandising practices angered a specific subset of the population. In both scenarios, consumers spoke out, bonded together, took to the Internet to shame the brand, etc. But consumers only won one of these battles- and it’s really interesting to think about why.
Battle 1: Previous comments made by the CEO about A&F’s consumer target recently resurfaced and caused some hoopla. Apparently, CEO Michael S. Jeffries has made comments over the years about only wanting to sell his clothes to the cool kids. As the “LA Times” explains, Jeffries once commented that A&F purposely targets 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. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
Now, having a brand strategy with a defined demographic is NOT a bad thing, nor an evil one. In fact, I promise you that many other companies also plan their brands for the cool kids. And from a business perspective, it makes complete sense to have a target consumer. The problem is that attractiveness is so arbitrary, and Jeffries’ interpretation of “attractive” has a lot to do with size. Past comments have implied that the company doesn’t care to make clothes for larger sizes. Cue the consumer madness, because that just doesn’t seem fair, or right, or nice.
Battle 2: A&F produced a shirt that mocked Taylor Swift’s dating habits. Nevermind that it’s TRUE that Taylor Swift has lots of boyfriends- Taylor’s fans got offended. The “Swifties,” as they’re apparently called, used the Internet to assemble themselves and threatened A&F with a boycott.
So now that you’ve read both battles: which one do you think the consumers won? The one that had to do with image and appreciating all sorts of body types? Or the one that had to do with a group of mostly female teeny-boppers who obsess over a pop star? Ding ding ding. If you guessed #2, you’re correct. A&F pulled the Taylor Swift shirt in response to her angry fans. But they haven’t yet backed down on their comments about who they want to wear their clothes, and I doubt they will. You see, it comes back to targeting: they know that those teenage Swifties are a core group for them, so they realized that despite the silliness, conceding on the shirt meant keeping a big piece of their customer base. Meanwhile, their brand policy is to be exclusive: so why would they start extend their sizes? A brand that prides itself on being “exclusionary” has no incentive to suddenly be “nice” or “just.” It’s not a brand that wants to be perceived as democratic or humanitarian: it’s a brand rooted in expensive basics with a cocky flair.
I’m definitely not saying that their approach is correct, and I certainly don’t find it nice or appropriate, either. But it seems to me like their choice to ignore the consumer uproar over sizing/appearance was a strategic one: it only serves to further enhance the idea of the brand as “exclusionary.” There’s a serious stereotype out there of who wears their clothes. After all: there’s a reason LFO sang “she looks like a girl who wears Abercrombie & Fitch.“