Big Brands, Cool Kids & Why You're Fat

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," Jeffries said in the Salon article. "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. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

With that out of the way, I can say that I hope his overly lifted face rots in hell, where he will spend an eternity being relentlessly tormented and ridiculed by bullies. Now that I’ve given you a tiny hint about my personal opinion, I think it's time to create a post that is open for debate.

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My close friend Kevin Bergin stated that, while he didn't support the message of the statement, he thought it was brilliant in an anti-hero fashion. No pun intended. We spoke at great length regarding the situation. Then I asked him to write out his thoughts, which I will share with you here:

"I won't defend Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. The statements he made this week (taken from the 2006 Salon article) were cold, harsh and hard to swallow, but they were also branding genius and they just might work for the company.

I'll start by saying that I'm not an Abercrombie customer. I'm old, I'm bald and I'm fat; I'm covered in tattoos and grow a beard about 11 1/2 months a year. I'm the antithesis of everything Abercrombie, I'm everything Jeffries wants to exclude from his brand. I should be upset at his comments, but I'm not, because I get it, I understand.

Every business has a target demographic. A group of people that they fight for, market to, and look to gain every dollar they can from. A retailer like Walmart has a huge demographic, whereas artisans of hand-tied fly fishing lures have an incredibly narrow demo. In essence, what Jeffries did was laser focus on Abercrombie's ideal client: the fit, good-looking all-American teenager. He played to their emotions, perceptions and to how they are viewed in society, instantly added cachet to the Abercrombie name and branding, and created an air of exclusivity around the brand.

Steve Rubell, the famed owner of Studio 54, understood the value of the velvet rope. By controlling who could enter his club, he achieved two goals that propelled the club to stardom: those allowed entry were elated to be part of the "in" crowd, while the desire for acceptance in those left outside grew even stronger and they would do anything to get in. Jeffries has in effect created a velvet rope around his secretive, shuttered stores, and he certainly isn't the first to capitalize on the dual headed snake of exclusivity.

Ferrari could make the world's best $75,000 car, but they don't because it would tarnish the halo of their higher end supercars. Louis Vuitton surely doesn't have a line of bags for Target in its pipeline, and lets be realistic, Harvard isn't admitting many C+ students. Tens of thousands of people have American Express cards, so many that no one even bats an eye when you pay with one; but pull out an American Express Centurion card (the uber rare black one) and a spectacle always ensues. A close friend of mine has one and very rarely uses it because the inevitable questions of "how much do you have to spend to get this?" and "you must be really rich, huh?" make it an annoyance. He's had people ask if they can take a picture with it. With a damn credit card. Jeffries' exclusionary comments handed the Ferrari keys to the "in" crowd. Wearing and buying the brand signifies a parting of the velvet rope. The teenage mind yearns for acceptance, and by limiting it Abercrombie has imparted Black Card cachet to its clientele.

With clothing prices bordering on exorbitant, Abercrombie needs to create a perceived value to entice buyers. Entrance into this exclusive club is the perceived value. When buying A&F clothes, the buyer who might not be so sure of himself now thinks "I am beautiful. I am fit, I am part of something that others can't belong to." To the core Abercrombie client this perception makes their $80 jeans better than Target's $40 jeans. Playing to the narcissism of the "cool" American teenager is genius. It isn't humane, it isn't PC, but that cool American teenager doesn't really give a rat's ass about humanity or political correctness; they are self centered and vain, a little cruel and probably feel a little validated in purchasing from A&F after these statements were made. For those of you out there who think that the American Teenager is better than that, Abercrombie's sales grew 50% from 2009 to 2012, so the marketing machine is fully functional and working well, the American teenager has engaged the brand.

As inflammatory as Jeffries' comments were to most of us, the reality is that the only people alienated by them weren't clients of theirs anyway. If your business is going to focus on a narrow demographic, who gives a damn what those on the outside feel, unless it makes them desire to purchase from you? I'm sure the marketing department at Ford doesn't stay up at night losing sleep over how to convert those die hard Mustang hating Chevy fans; they focus on their clientele, build loyalty to their brand and hope to pick up a few new customers who were on the fence, but not fiercely brand loyal.

Jeffries took a big step off a high cliff with his comments; had he sung us a song of corporate legalese about rising costs of the global supply chain or reduced engagement due to over diversification in the brand, the nation wouldn't be stewing about his comments. Jeffries chose honesty; painful, hurtful honesty, but honesty nonetheless. Most CEOs have tiptoed around being candid about their brands. Jeffries decided to shoot straight. Only time will tell whether his comments were brand Hara-kiri or pure marketing genius. But by focusing so intently on his core customer, I'm inclined to believe that Abercrombie will continue to see growing sales and engagement."

To Kevin’s credit, I believe the most of what he outlined to be true from a traditional advertising capacity. As I said in a previous post that nowadays, "bad press is actually bad press" –  I think the same could be said in this instance. Additionally, I will support my point by mentioning the condition I refer to as "brand fragility.” At any time, it is possible for a previously loyal customer to do a 180 on a brand if they have a sense that the trusted connection has been broken. Everyone has a tipping point.

I also chose not to immediately post my gut feeling regarding this situation as I awaited the Internet's response. And of course in dutiful fashion, the Internet did what the Internet does.

And last but not least we have some Madison Avenue PR firm desperately trying to assess the poorly constructed crisis management fix by getting the always expected, "that's not what I meant to say" reply.

"I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."

If you're on the advertising end of a global, national, local or mom-and-pop brand of any kind, then you …

Wait Justice, that means just about everything!

Exactly. You never expect not to be punished by unforeseen backlash. That’s why it is unforseen.

One of the best things that you can do, however, his plan for every possible scenario within the context of your brand protection strategy. If you think that you don't need one, well then you probably don't need a business plan either.

Godspeed.

One of the many techniques I've utilized over the course of my career is that of a “pre” postmortem scenario.

What could go wrong? How could it go wrong? What should we do if it goes wrong? How can we ensure that we maintain and nurture the ecosystem of our consumers’ loyalty?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. I think this is absolutely just the tip of the iceberg, we will see how well brands are prepared in the future.