Smart Marketing or a Loss of Humanity @ Abercrombie?

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A business insider story, which ironically reported news that is over 5 years old caught the world by storm last week.  The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch clothing retailer had some controversial statements about who they market too, and more importantly, who they do NOT want to associate with.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO

‘In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.’”

I will assume this quote is 100% accurate and NOT taken out of a broader context.  After spending over an hour trying to find something to the contrary, I found nothing on-line, on the company’s Facebook page, or official releases to prove otherwise.

Marketers everywhere need to take a hard look at public examples like this.  They provide great learning opportunities of what can work well, and not so much.

First, what can I agree with on this quote?The basic premise.  Brands can NOT be everything to everyone.  They need to stand for something, or run the risk of being “vanilla” as the CEO states.  But the thought of using the same word as this person is making me nauseous!  Great Marketing is certainly about knowing what you stand you for and over-delivering to that audience.

So, I can agree in the premise of “targeting.”  This is where it ends for me as it relates to “smart marketing”, and quite frankly, common decency:

“…A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely….”

Why deliberately broadcast, and in this case shout from the mountain tops that you are exclusionary?  Does the upside outweigh the risk?  No!
Do people that “FIT” this target audience feel better or worse to be associated with this chain?  I have to believe in the decency of all people, and believe the core consumers are not MORE motivated to shop there, but less.  Peer pressure matters.  Is it “cool” to be mean?

What about other stakeholders?  Investors, employees, vendors?  An argument can always be made for each side, but I am doubtful a case can be made that the ends justifies the means.

Great marketers, in my experience have a penchant for rigorous analysis.  They seek facts, from consumers, customers and suppliers.  They challenge assumptions and quantify their thinking.  They balance analysis with intuition, which is backed by experience.  They are also risk takers.  Sometimes, the world is not simply black and white however, there are shades of grey.

There’s a classic tool from the OLD SCHOOL when dealing with the grey area:  The Mirror.

Mirror test in decision making

The mirror does not lie.  When you like what you see in the mirror when confronted with a difficult decision, carry on.  When you view that decision, look in the mirror and feel butterflies?  Stop, slow down and start re-thinking.  Start re-thinking DEEP.  Life is too short not to sleep well at night.

The Abercrombie & Fitch Lesson for me would be one that wouldn’t pass my PERSONAL mirror test, for a couple reasons, if I were on the inside A&F team.

  • Bullying is a real problem in this country, in the news every day.  The lifelong impacts to bullying victims are well documented and nothing short of devastating
  • Aren’t image problems among young kids rampant enough?  Do we need to throw it in their face from the most visible person at a company?
  • Most important:  What if my daughter was part of this group that doesn’t fit?  Would she be proud of my position or confused and upset?

I believe that you can cater to an audience (“target”) and not PUT DOWN another audience.

Getting ahead in life does not need to come at the expense of tearing someone down.

I’m an optimist by nature.  One of my favorite twitter hash-tags = #OPTIMISM.  

The A&F folks may have fallen into the trap of being lazy, not doing their research and putting the CEO’s public comments up for review.  Or the CEO may have been loose lipped, which also happens.  Or maybe they didn’t employ the mirror test to begin with?  Or their mirror returned a picture that the organization is OK with.

Regardless, a quick review of  the A&F Facebook page is given them plenty of marketplace feedback.  It shows a fire-storm, and fires are harder to put out when they are raging vs. a spark.

Sometimes the “rigor” of research supports a given decision that may go against your personal mirror test.  I’m sure that happens.  But my experience at least shows them to be very rare.

The Optimist in me hopes that research and the mirror test always agree for all of you as well….

It does not matter in this case if the CEO is “right or wrong.”  There is a wonderful thing about Free Enterprise; there is an under-lying premise of FREEDOM.  The consumer will vote with their dollars.

Nothing is a given in this Market place, it needs to be earned daily.

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  1. Bettejo says:

    When my daughter was in middle school, A&F became a very big thing. Of course she wanted it, and I really didn’t mind buying the clothes for her. What I found was an inferior product. Seams weren’t sewn properly, looked awful after washing a few times. Back then it wasn’t for the “pretty people” it was more for kids who’s parents could afford the over priced clothes. After a few items, I said there wouldn’t be anymore A&F, no quality whatsoever. The last thing our children need is to get bullied by a CEO who needs to learn some manners, some respect, and how to make decent merchandise.

    PS, Hi Mark!

    • Great to hear from you Bettejo! Could not agree more, CEO’s should be held to a very high standard, and that includes “decency” and being a good corporate citizaen. Sometimes we learn all too well what NOT to do. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Harry Hustle says:

    Well written Mark- I remember when I was in HighSchool and even college. Abercrombie was the rage. You were “cool” if you wore their closes. BUT- there was a certain stigma associated with the brand- arrogance. When you walked in to the store, no one ever greeted you. When you needed help, store associates seemed bothered. As I grow older, I see their marketing and I get disgusted. The social pressure Abercrombie puts on kids shouldn’t be accepted. Rewind the clock and look at how far this country has digressed from its morals. Today kids are so concerned about “fitting in.” This concern leads them to anxiety, peer-pressure, a whole list. I’m a parent of a 1 year old and we’ve got a 2nd due in August. I’ll be damned if I allow marketing efforts like Abercrombie dictate how my daughter views herself. If society had morals, Abercrombie’s CEO would be shunned. Investors would exit, and Abercrombie would wither and perish.

    Keep up the thought provoking content!


    • HH,
      CONGRATS on the second arrival! That’s awesome news. Lots of societal issues that crop up from these examples, you cite many of them. It is refreshing when you see examples of businesses “doing well by doing good.” A&F certainly may be doing well, the latter, not so much. Always creates opportunities for those that have different approaches, and a market will emerge and consumers will vote with their almighty dollars! Thanks for your comments and congrats again!

  3. Mark,
    You gave me a lot to think about with this post. I started writing a comment yesterday but it turned into a blog post, so now it’s over at the Eli Rose site (
    I don’t like the man, his attitude, or the brand’s clothes, but I think those comments passed the mirror test and there’s probably plenty of research to back that up. The A&F brand is unfortunately EXACTLY what comes across in his statements…

    • Thanks Tom. Agree that they have done a fantastic job defining their brand. My believe however is that they can have a win-win, clearly define and cater to their market WITHOUT offending at the same time someone NOT in their core. Your example of Apple is very solid, good post on your end.

  4. Michael B. Moore says:

    I’m guessing this is a case of a non brand trained CEO being in the middle of brand positioning conversations with his marketers/agencies and taking things he heard out of context and inappropriately sharing them publicly. At Coke, we had one specific consumer that we targeted for the entire Coca-Cola brand. Now of course the business happily sold to everyone of every age on the planet, but we were laser focused on getting this one consumer because doing so yielded so many positive and strategic things for the brand and business.

    If we’re talking A/F positioning alone, I’d probably agree with everything he said. I’m also guessing that he’s really very happy with the sales he gets from the “wannabe” cool kids across America. It’s just that once he loses those (actual) cool kids, his brand is toast.

    There is a way to have explained that to the public that would have been less offensive – if he absolutely had to. He just utterly failed in that effort.

    • Great comments Michael, agree. I am sure the PR folks, many people on his brand team were cringing with how he managed (or not) to navigate the public waters here. Awkward at best.

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