In an effort to revise their drastically declining sales Abercrombie & Fitch announced in early 2015 that it was dressing up. Literally. No more half naked hunks. No more piercings or tattoos. Employees will no longer be chosen by body type or looks, put on a shirt and henceforth be called ‘brand representatives’ instead of ‘models’.
Will it work? We doubt it. Has it worked to date? No!
It’s an odd idea, to say the least, that ‘uglifying’ and covering up will make you sexier. Sure, the other direction – baring more – was hardly an option, without being sued for indecent exposure. And it is certainly more seductive to ‘avert the overt’ (see our principle of ‘Un-Selling’). But, once you’ve made physicality a cornerstone of your brand and connected your cool to buffed beauty it’s hard to back-track.
The brand was and is without a doubt in need of ‘substantiation’ and ‘growing up’ to re-gain their design target and the rest that followed them, including all those teenage girls. But you don’t achieve that by lowering your standards or ‘re-regulating’ personal decor choices. Rather, A&F should add some brain to the brawn. Prove that external beauty and a white-teethed smile don’t mean the absence of personality and punch. Show that all those pure and seemingly innocent looks can go hand in hand with a more evolved and complex outlook, that there is something beyond and underneath the shaved torsos and doe-eyed allusions. That they have aged, in synch with their target.
Because that’s the issue: A&F’s fans have gotten older, the world has turned a couple of times and yes, we started leaning to a somewhat more relaxed and understated idea of self-expression and -presentation. We like some soul with our sex these days – even or especially when we’re young. Pornography has lost part of its allure in the digital age, we want mind with the matter. But all this doesn’t mean you could or should eschew what you stand for and re-invent yourself as born-again puritan. The opposite. Today’s consumers, and nobody more so than young ones, smell a marketing hoax – and desperation – from a mile away, no less when it comes with a ‘Fierce’ cologne. Brands must be true to themselves. And in the case of A&F that does mean a certain youthful beauty and pure, unbridled sensuality or at least physicality. Dressing up doesn’t get them anywhere therefore. What they do need is to grow up – mix some substance into their sexiness. Add some layers, yes, but not de-sex themselves.
The irony is: A&F has such a rich brand heritage to draw from. It would be easy to accentuate the brand’s depth without denying the outward ‘fleshiness’ it rode for the past years. Just go back to it’s explorer and safari past. Re-tell the stories of outfitting adventurers and travelers. Give those khakis some traction, rough them up a bit, and not just in pre-wash. Keep the glam and the daring but beyond unbuttoned flies and marry it with true daring-do. It’s all in the archives. As it always is with strong brands. Their managers just need to dig it up and understand it …
November 2016 Update: Sadly, we have to report that Abercrombie does NOT get it. Have you seen their latest ads? You can hardly miss them, as they are plastered across buses and walls, stare at in magazines, newspapers and on your screen. What is your visceral reaction to this:
Well, you are not alone in not buying it. Financial analysts don’t, either (ANF shares are down over 30% since we strated discussing this) and the latest financial results show that the way A&F approaches this repositioning is a huge waste of money. Sales are down – which means people don’t the sudden transformation from jock to cutsie – while costs are up – as A&F wastes a ton of money on trying to fight its brand myth rather than evolve it, as it has so brilliantly done in the past.
P.S. We worry having to report that another brand is ‘losing it,’ soon: ‘Cirque du Soleil’. In our book we laud the determination with which founder Guy Laliberte’s protects the street fair roots of the cirque and his acrobats from becoming ‘hamsters in a wheel working off debt’ by retaining ownership control (‘Rethinking Prestige Branding’ p.210). But now we we read that he has finally ‘given in,’ selling a controlling stake in his company to US and Chinese investors. The reason given is to ‘enable expansion into Asia’, namely China, and it actually makes sense to bring some new ‘blood’ into this aging ‘cirque’. But a company so closely linked to its founder who always made artistic, personal and moral integrity a key aspect of its success will be held to higher standards and scrutinized much more than your average brand. Just remember Anita Roddick and the Body Shop. Only time will tell if this sale was truly an important step in the expansion of an iconic brand or the begin of it’s selling out. (Stay tuned)