Since the 1990s Abercrombie & Fitch has been a fashion brand that has taken the label from failure (it harks back to 1892 but by the 70s had failed as a company,) to gigantic success with an annual turnover measured now in the billions. At the heart of this story has been a fundamental disconnect between the image of the brand – clean-cut, Mid-Western, Joe College values (exemplified by their use of the Carlson twins as models who showed off their flesh more than they did the actual fashion) – and the aggressive multinational fashion company that uses cheap third world labour to manufacture faux nostalgia (college sweatshirts that you might have rescued from your dad’s top drawer) and then peddle this through a lavish chain of upmarket flagship stores.
A&F deliver dreams. They’re not alone in this, far from it, and in many respects they exemplify A+ marketing: tapping into needs and wants and through packaging, price and placement ensuring healthy profits.
But the disconnect comes at a price. Reputational Risk. It is one thing to be a brand that, deep down, offers a perfromance benefit. For some reason I’m thinking of Coleman and camping supplies. That company has been dedicated to delivering products that function, and show little details that users appreciate. A fashion label such as A&F simply delivers image. Its product quality is nothing special, it’s designs are derivative rather than original, it’s fabrics – mostly cotton – offer no USP. But the dreams and packaging and catalogues and image – well, they’ve been the reason for the brand’s success. It sells something that is accessible. You too can be part of the A&F movie. One of the gang.
But it turns out the gang is less inclusive than it has made out in the advertising. The CEO is quoted as saying that he doesn’t want to sell larger sized items because he doesn’t want fat people wearing his brand. He doesn’t want them in his stores. Instead of being genial Joe College, Abercrombie & Fitch is, deep down, the spoilt snob.
Suddenly the gap between image and reality is made, in just one quote from the CEO, as plain as day. Here’s what happend. I’m taking this straight from The Drum.
An LA-based writer is looking to give Abercrombie & Fitch a ‘brand readjustment’ by asking viewers to donate their A&F clothing to their local homeless shelter, after the CEO of the company suggested he didn’t want ‘unattractive people’ or people over a certain size shopping there.
Greg Karber created a YouTube video suggesting that people donate clothes, and send pictures of them doing so to #FitchTheHomeless.
The video went live on Monday and has so far almost received a million views.
In it, Karber insists ‘Together, we can remake the A&F brand.’
The video caught like wildfire – with more than a million “likes” on Facebook within 48 hours. With the story being widely picked-up in the media this week the twittersphere has become a pile-on of latent A&F hate. The story in itself has resonance, but I suspect the speed at which this reputational wildfire has spread comes from the degree to which the brand has already built up enmity within the public.
- Everyone loves the A&Fitch bashing video. The brand is for 14 yr old douche bags anyways, it doesn’t need a homeless ppl “readjustment”
- Abercrombie & Fitch would rather burn the clothes that it doesn’t need rather than give it to charities… Wow.. Um… Ya…
- I’ve been hating on Abercrombie & Fitch for years, just because their clothes are ugly, y’all slow
There are at least 4 solid reputation management lessons to be drawn from the story so far.
- The wider the gap between your image and your reality, the bigger the reputation risk.
- Over time every little misstep or poor judgement will aggregate to form a parallel narrative to your official version. Like debris in a forest, it will prove flammable in certain conditions.
- Every once in a while it pays to cut some clean firebreaks through bold, well intentioned actions that are both credible and meaningful.
- You may stand FOR something, and FOR your target market. But don’t confuse that with the making statements that put down others. Remember, they are legion and they are armed with social media.
For his own part, film maker Greg Karber may face a firestorm of his own. I’m predicting he will on the basis that he has also ignored three of the four rules above. He has not validated his expertise on the subject of ethics – and judging by his whining, even sarcastic tone in the video – he seems more personally aggrieved than truly concerned with business ethics. I might be wrong there, but he leaves room for doubt.
But already there has been growing criticism of his use of homeless people as mere props in his production. Never once does he seek their opinion, or lend them much dignity either. His message: since A&F hates the uncool – I’ll use the uncool to highlight the fact. In so doing he’s just as guilty of snobbery as is his target.
There’s a fifth lesson in reputation management that karber should heed. Most reputational damage is self inflicted.