Lessons Learned: Abercrombie & Fitch

Lessons Learned is a series that delves into brands and asks “What can I learn from you?” It’s the work experience kid; full of enthusiasm and sufficiently educated, but with little wisdom or insider information. New lessons from different brands every week.

The semi-naked demigods guarding the actually quite good-smelling Abercrombie & Fitch emporium.

Heather Sundell’s article ‘Teenage Dreams, Financial Independence and Abercrombie & Fitch’ opens with a touching chronicle of her adolescent self’s fashion habits. She had fallen for Abercrombie and Fitch; the sexy, distinctly teenage brand, whose quarterly catalogue often caught the drool of those who didn’t quite know what went where, became something of an obsession for Sundell.

But returning to one of their dimly-lit emporiums in adulthood, Sundell realised that “the age of Abercrombie had long been over.” Abercrombie & Fitch’s (‘A&F’ from here on in) glory in her teenage years had been a mirage; “it hadn’t experienced a decline. It was always this crappy.”

Maybe this is a case of that cringeworthy teenage nostalgia. Now older, Sundell realises that “it wasn’t Abercrombie that had changed; it was me.”

But most 13–21 year olds since 2010, before maturity, seem to have changed too. As of 2014, A&F suffered 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines. It closed shops, cut back on inventories, shifted away from logo products, cut costs, and in 2016, recorded the lowest ever score on the annual ACSI assessment of retailer popularity.

Yes, the age of Abercrombie is over, but it was a recent and lofty fall. So in this installment of Lessons Learned, I hope to show why 13–21 year olds used to believe in the sexualised, cool, beautiful life that A&F sold, and why they no longer do.

Target, target, target.

Mike Jeffries, the A&F CEO who presided over the brand’s explosive transformation from purveyor of outdoorsy clothing to must-have teenage fashion label, said in a 2006 interview with Salon that he was aiming to attract the “cool kids […] the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends”.

In practise, this meant selling a brand new product line to a brand new audience: 13–21 year olds. This was Jeffries’ big idea when he walked through A&F’s doors in 1992. And by 1996, the idea had paid off; $250 million in company profit, and an IPO, to be exact.

By the 1990s, young adults had comparatively more money to spend than their predecessors, and so a luxury teenage outfitter was a sensible business niche to choose. But Jeffries’ choice also gave the flagging brand some much needed focus. Soon enough, A&F was secreting youth from every pore. The clothes were bright and boldly-branded, its shops were dark and guarded by chiselled teenage demigods, its posters sexualised young people down to the last water droplet, and the now-CEO who presided over it all wore flip-flops to work.

One from the Bruce Weber series; the photographer commissioned by Mike Jeffries to help craft Abercrombie & Fitch’s nw aesthetic.

For Jenny Daroch, “Abercrombie & Fitch passed the ultimate marketing test — i.e., when you walked into a store you knew exactly what the brand stood for and whom it was targeting”. It had one promise: to sell luxury teenage fashion, and as we will see, one highly tailored marketing strategy to fulfil it.

Mark Ritson describes a brand repositioning as the “radical attempt to invent a totally new position for an existing brand and […] is rarely sustainable”. A&F’s 1992 repositioning certainly seemed sustainable, considering that 1,000 stores had been built and $4.5 billion profit earned in the subsequent 20 years. But Ritson’s writing was on the wall; A&F’s fortunes weren’t to last.

Market to your customers.

Fashion consultant Robin Lewis is quoted in AdWeek saying that Jeffries’ success was “when he locked into the zeitgeist of the times”. By this, I think he means an “understood weakness of the teenage shopper at the time”; the desire to belong.

Does that mean A&F’s success in the 1990s and early 2000s was down to young consumers who were more gullible than those of the 2010s, who earnestly opened their wallets anxious to conform?

We can certainly suggest so. Exclusion was never explicit, but persistently ran through A&F’s marketing of that era. Famed for being the first to sexualise college teenagers, the brand’s sexual ads helped to build what Vahini Vara calls the “aesthetic of conformity”.

Abercrombie clothes were for those permanently lean, glowing people who starred in the ads. For those in the top social stratum with youth, beauty and friends. For those who are just like them, or more worryingly, for those who aspire to be, or envy them. You’re not an “attractive all-American kid with a great attitude”? Sorry, there’s nothing A&F can do to balance the genetic and environmental lotteries. “A lot of people don’t belong, and can’t belong” in their clothes. Oh well. luck of the draw.

The aesthetic was identical in Abercrombie and Fitch’s catalogue; A&F quarterly. Famous for nudity and oral sex advice.

The peak of A&F’s success came before the movement for positive, representative media had truly gained momentum. So perhaps the 13–21 year olds of the time, under the incessant pressure of orthodoxy, were willing to spend more on fitting in.

They were never fools, but a diet of incessant abs, semi-naked storefront models, sun-kissed catalogue photos and an admittedly lovely shop fragrance fixed the brand as aspirational. And cool. The more people bought the clothes, the more reality resembled the social hierarchy in the adverts and vice versa; the cool kids wore Abercrombie. And went to its dingy outlets over the weekend.

But I feel there’s more to the insight than youth anxiety. There was something else aspirational about the brand. Its clothes were bright, expensive, and boldly-branded. Whether or not Channing Tatum modelled it, luxury young adult clothing was innovative, and for many, a stepping stone in the development of their fashion or financial independence.

Aspirational certainly, then, but with a dark underbelly. Exclusionary marketing was an essential part of A&F’s growth, but it’s a strategy with victims. We saw its benefits in Monzo, whose ‘golden tickets’ fast-track customers through the losers’ waiting list. A&F’s strategy is much more aggressive. It is unjust when reality is not reflected in our media, but when media is so distorted those not represented will, at the very least, won’t buy your stuff. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Young and lazy.

So what happened? Having understood its successes, we must now examine what brought A&F’s growth to a shuddering halt.

In a word, it was inflexibility.

“Abercrombie didn’t look over their shoulder at the younger millennials coming up”, says fashion consultant Robin Lewis, “and that’s why this brand is in the shitter.”

Today’s teenagers have different retail habits and a greater choice of products. The most pertinent change here is price attitudes. 57% of millennials compare prices when in a bricks and mortar store, and sitting alongside the effects of 2008’s recession and student debt, A&F’s target demographic became less willing, and indeed able, to pay for its high-ticket items. And although department store shopping is by no means dead, the rise of “pop up stores” and the ease of e-commerce means the A&F stores are now less of a destination in their own right.

There’s also new competition, both in terms of price and product. Forever21 and H&M have successfully muscled in on the teenage fashion scene, and have pioneered “fast fashion”; mimicking fashions from the runway and selling them cheaply. As the trend has taken off, followed by others (such as vintage second-hand), demand for ostentatious luxury clothing has slumped.

H&M, purveyor of fast fashion.

A&F made no concessions to these warning signs. But Daroch is among those who think to have done so would have been a mistake. “Discounting prices to generate sales and/or cheapening materials so as to lower costs, and therefore prices, would have diminished the brand.” Far better, in her mind, “to stay true to the brand promise”.

But in order to stay true to a brand promise, you have to change. Young adult luxury clothing in 2015 isn’t the same thing as it was in 1990, so A&F’s brand promise requires them to update their product. I’m not suggesting they copy H&M, but surely it’s obvious that their clothes’ branding needed to become a little more subtle. It doesn’t need to be a conflict between standing still or abandoning ship; just move the ship on a bit.

Are brands still a big deal?

Also important are teenagers’ attitudes to brands themselves. Especially so in this case study because the A&F brand, physically, was such a large part of the clothes you could buy.

I often read the question ‘Are millennials brand agnostic?’, which is pertinent in the light often unbranded “fast fashion”. We’d maybe assume so, considering that value/price and friend recommendations are more important for millennials than brand reputation when it comes to trialling a new brand.

But, 70% of what eMarketer called ‘affluent millennials’ felt that their favourite brands played an important role in their life, and 60% felt an emotional connection to such brands. 59% of those surveyed in AdWeek were willing to give brand recommendations to friends and family. Affluent millennials were A&F’s target audience, so the question of why they don’t buy the hoodies clearly goes a bit beyond new retail habits and fashion market trends.

Young, lazy, blonde and white.

It’s more that today’s young adults are also much less concerned with A&F’s “aesthetic of conformity”. Although Mike Jeffries “found it difficult to imagine that there might be cool kids who were not popular or, for that matter, blonde and white”, we can’t say the same of 13–21 year olds now. Margaret Talbot raises the point in The New Yorker; A&F’s “fashion elitism” began to distance it from its target customers.

Positive, representative media and a concern for diversity crafts a sense of self. The washboard-abs of Abercrombie are no longer aspirational, they’re just not relevant. Of course, peer pressure isn’t obsolete; 55% of millennials value friends’ recommendations the most when buying something new. But the move to pluralist fashion, as young adults choose styles over brand names, is surely an indicator that aspirational, exclusionary marketing is an outdated strategy.

Social media has laid this bare in the case of A&F; in 2013, blogger Jes Baker published a spoof photo series named “Attractive & Fat,” which satirized the A&F chiselled aesthetic.

From Baker’s ‘Attractive and Fat’ series.

It seems to be a pitfall of over-targeting. A&F did pass Darroch’s “ultimate marketing test”, but when you’re targeting only the ‘cool’ and the ‘good-looking’, the positioning will only be fruitful as long as A&F’s customers believe that they’re good qualities to have. When their faith waned, the brand collapsed, and A&F had remained so true to their outdated brand promise that by they time they started to become flexible, it was too late to reverse 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines.

Gaffes, blunders, and scandals.

Elitism and exclusion were perhaps more than a marketing strategies for A&F during its peak years. Only slightly less iconic than its titillating adverts were A&F’s PR disasters.

The case of Ms. Elauf, Jeffries’ quoted interview with Salon, a 2004 class-action lawsuit charging that A&F discriminated against African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans in both hiring and its advertising, and “a line of thongs, marketed to girls as young as ten, with the words wink-wink on the crotch” are all examples that reek of ignorance. It’s little wonder, given Jeffries’ declaration that A&F only wanted “cool, good-looking people” as customers, that exclusion became something of a corporate culture.

Making something the way people want it to be made is increasingly important. Consumers generally prize transparency and ethical, inclusive practises. “This generation is about inclusiveness and valuing diversity. It’s not about looking down on people”, says Erik Gordon rather holistically.

More specifically, an Adroit survey reported that 44% of questioned millennials expect brands to have open dialogue with them, and 38% said brands need to become more about the consumer and less about the brand. Something tells me that the ‘Look Policy’ didn’t come from a focus group.

“The values they stood for were no less grimy” writes Heather Sundell, as she remembers her early days shopping in A&F. She is perhaps remembering the near-fanatical ‘Look Policy’; a section published on BuzzFeed details that male employees were forbidden from growing moustaches or beards.

To sum up.

The lessons we have learned from “one of the most successful — and most hated — brands in retail history” are;

  1. Market to a specific group audience, and understand them well.
  2. You cannot over-target customers to the point of exclusion.
  3. Your brand promise must be flexible; the principle which governs your products and your practices.
  4. Company values are under scrutiny by modern consumers, and falling short puts them off.

Somewhat ironically, it was 2016 by the time A&F remembered change as a useful weapon in the fight to change brand fortunes. The ads focus on the original, outdoorsy brand heritage, its clothes litter the Instagrams of influencers, the shirtless models have been wheeled away, and the new product line that features ‘classic’ t-shirts and sneakers takes the “no logo approach”.

The new look Abercrombie and Fitch. No logo, no abs.

“We have a positive story to tell”, one A&F executive told New York Magazine, now that they offer clothes in a realistic variety of sizes and fits.

Time will judge the success of the attempt to revitalise A&F. Some believe it’s a good chance to reconnect with their original teenage customers now in their thirties, or new young shoppers, but others bemoan the “genericism” of the new lineup.

As AdWeek judges, “it’s the brand that showed marketers how to push the envelope and showed what happens when it gets pushed too far.” Targeting the young adult market doesn’t necessitate corporate ignorance and exclusionary marketing. But we grew up, and realised these distasteful practices for what they are. A&F grew up, and realised they’d pushed the envelope so far that to change would mean “saying there isn’t as much value in its brand anymore”. Hence Abercrombie and Fitch has been replaced by a small moose.

Either way, though, in the words of Margaret Talbot of The New Yorker, “if it’s no longer profitable to tout your cultural intolerance, that’s pretty cool.”

Thank you very much for reading. if you have any thoughts, please do share them below.