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?
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
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.
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
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,