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  • Writer's pictureMark Olivito

Smart Marketing or a Loss of Humanity @ Abercrombie?

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.

‘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.

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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