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Abercrombie & Fail: Brand positioning versus the people
Posted by
Al Mackay at 11:00

I'm finding it hard to look away from the scandal engulfing Abercrombie & Fitch, following their CEO Mike Jeffries' public announcement that the reason his company refuses to make plus-sized clothing is that they target the 'cool kids' - implying, of course, that fat people would ruin his brand. In his words "a lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

It's a bold move and, understandably, it has infuriated a lot of people - to the extent that fake A&F campaigns have been created featuring larger women and male models (Attractive & Fat), and one particularly enraged shopper is encouraging people to donate their A&F clothes to the homeless, so that the brand becomes associated with homelessness (#FitchTheHomeless).

From a brand strategy point of view, Jeffries is probably right. A&F is built on the idea of the all-American college kid. It's sporty, it's aspirational and it celebrates the athletic physique. The brand idea is backed up by shirtless models employed to greet people as they enter their stores. Jeffries clearly understands the extent to which shoppers are socially influenced by others. Perhaps the 'cool kids' don't want to wear what the uncool kids are wearing, and perhaps catering to larger people would destroy some of that brand value.

So why has it generated such a backlash?

It's certainly not a very "nice" brand positioning. It's unkind, damaging to people's self-esteem, and it perpetuates a social dynamic of exclusion. I personally much prefer brands like Dove, whose purpose is to make people feel better about themselves.

But not all brands are like Dove. I would argue, in fact, that the number of brands who trade on exclusivity and insecurity is much higher than the number of brands who make us feel a glowing sense of togetherness. And if we accept it from so many other brands, then is it just that Jeffries has been so blunt that annoys people?

As a big fan of the move towards authenticity and transparency, I hope this does not mean that being honest is not applicable for all brands - and that certain strategic decisions, like who you target, should be kept to yourself. I think, perhaps, a better lesson to take from this is to keep your brand positioning in touch with shifting consumer expectations. It's all well and good to be bold and opinionated as a brand - in fact it's something I think American brands do much better than our own, to their enormous benefit - but be sure you understand when that opinion becomes out of touch with how society feels.

Society's conception of beauty is shifting to a healthier, more inclusive kind of aesthetic. And we're also demanding, more and more, that brands offer some kind of real value and purpose. A&F may be feeling the wrath of consumers for being blunt about making people feel bad about themselves, but my feeling is that this wrath is coming for the brands who are more subtle about it, too. 

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