ABERCROMBIE & FITCH’s brand is taking a beating.
Their first quarter sales have dropped by 17%. Their stock prices have fallen by a whopping $4.35. To make matters worse, over the past two weeks, everybody who’s anybody has been denouncing them forcefully on the Internet.
The crime in question? These remarks made by CEO Mike Jeffries seven years ago, in an interview with Salon.com:
“We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than…the cool and popular kids. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
In addition, a writer named Greg Karber uploaded a video of himself trawling L.A. thrift shops for A&F clothing, and then giving them away to homeless people. His attempt to redefine A&F’s elitist image struck a chord with people and sparked a mass movement.
The video has garnered some 7 million views since being posted two Mondays ago, with its rallying call to action trending on Twitter under the hashtag of #fitchthehomeless.
This isn’t the first time that this has happened.
There have been several instances in history when the marketplace wrestles the branding reins away from corporate control.
Sometimes the heckler proves to be funnier (and more relevant) than the comedian onstage, and sometimes the crowd roars in approval. And sometimes, if the comedian doesn’t “roll with it”, this can ruin his public standing, and his career.
This phenomenon was first labelled in 2005 by marketing consultant Alex Wipperfurth as “brand hijacking“.
Not always a bad thing- The Reinvention of Dr. Martens:
Dr. Martens began as sturdy working boots meant for blue-collar workers. The punk rock revolution of the 1970s, however, elevated the boots to cult status amongst young teenage skinheads.
What did Dr. Martens do about this unexpected intrusion by market forces?
They embraced it. “Once the genie had been let out of the bottle,” their site reads, “the vapours of Dr. Martens’ rebellious spirit could not be contained and the boot seeped into every corner and crevice of youth culture.”
Not all brands respond to these market forces in the same way.
For every Dr. Martens reaping the benefits of unsolicited consumer involvement, there has been a Mattel actively resorting to litigation to suppress criticism.
As it turns out, roughhousing and threatening your critics tends to be bad for business. By threatening litigation instead of engaging their most devoted customers, Mattel killed the market momentum of their most successful product. The consequences have been stark, with the Examiner reporting a 30% domestic drop in sales in the decade since.
The message is clear: Whether you’re a comedian, artist or clothing label, you owe your existence to the market. Demean it at your own peril.
Old habits die hard:
These new revelations directly contradict traditional wisdom about marketing and communications.
In the past, power belonged to those who owned the means of distributing information- so media moguls and large brands could afford to simply overpower any dissenting or “undesirable” voices. They’re used to having that luxury.
Had Karber attempted Fitch the Homeless before the proliferation of social media, he might’ve gotten a footnote in some magazine, and be quickly forgotten afterwards.
These inherited (and possibly obsolete) worldviews have led marketeers and journalists such as Forbes Magazine’s Roger Dooley to defend the Abercrombie marketing strategy as a “perversely brilliant” one.
(Dooley has since come out to acknowledge that his assessment might’ve been premature, and that society may have reached a “tipping point”. For the sake of argument, let’s examine his previous stance anyway. )
Abercrombie’s elitism creates an exclusive club, they argue. Customers are supposedly captivated by the allure of social proof and attractiveness, and any outrage from lesser beings only serves to reinforce their sense of superiority. A&F customers will become more loyal, not less.
Perhaps that might have worked if Jeffries had been a little more tactful about it. Yes, people want to feel attractive, special—even superior.
A sense of superiority, though, doesn’t work if nobody actually thinks you’re superior. When there is a dissonance between what someone thinks of themselves and what others think of them, they come across as desperately narcissistic, self-obsessed and needy.
Nobody wants to be seen as that. Would you?
This is happening to A&F right now. Jeffries committed a cardinal sin nobody taught him about at Cool School: The moment you reveal your desire to be cool, you’re automatically disqualified.
Times have changed:
The general public today is increasingly aware of the conventions, intentions and processes of marketing. As Dooley went on to say, perhaps a tipping point threshold has been reached.
Stephen Brown put it thus: “Marketers know about consumers, consumers know about marketers, marketers know consumers know about marketers, and consumers know marketers know consumers know about marketers.”
This doesn’t mean that the average consumer is immune to traditional marketing. We’re still human, after all, and we have insecurities to be exploited.
That said, decades of bombardment from traditional marketing have made us weary of condescending “I-know-how-to-manipulate-you” marketers like Jeffries.
People are so tired and frustrated of the same old rhetoric that they jump at the opportunity to witness, and more importantly, to participate in something fresh and alternative- like the #fitchthehomeless movement.
Postmodern marketing is the equivalent of a knowing wink on the marketer’s part, where the consumer is acknowledged and flattered as a marketing-savvy modern citizen. “Okay, you got me, that’s just the polished sales pitch I give everybody else. You, however…”
The lines have blurred:
French Connection’s controversial rebranding in the late 90s was a masterful example of marketing calling attention to itself. By reshaping themselves around the combative “fcuk fashion” slogan, French Connection won the approval of young adults who were tired with the ubiquity of logo-saturated advertising.
Isn’t it deeply ironic for corporations to profit from appealing to anti-corporate sentiments? Yes. But that’s life in this crazy world we live in. (Consider the mainstream popularity of bands like Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine. People are quite willing to conform to sufficiently attractive displays of non-conformity.)
Consumers will participate and intervene, because now they can.
Social media now allows anti-establishment fringe groups to reach mainstream audiences, and these audiences are sometimes willing (and even eager) to give them their attention.
#FitchTheHomeless is an sterling example of things to come. The crowd is no longer content to sit passively and listen to comedians that they don’t find funny or relevant anymore.
The modern digitally-savvy consumer is still happy and eager to be seduced—but on her own terms, with the right to refusal and rebuttal firmly reserved. She is empowered by the democratisation of distribution, and she now has the means to make her own meaning. (Sure, this results in a lot of noise and drivel- but the good stuff is quickly picked up and shared.)
Once consumers have had a taste of this power, it’s hard to imagine them being relinquishing it willingly. They will be harsh to brands that try to restrict it, and they will lavish support and adulation for brands that honour their input. (See: Old Spice’s marketing campaign in 2012).
The monopoly on defining appeal has been broken.
Traditional methods of marketing (buy Superbowl advertisements, bombard the consumer with information that appeals to their base desires and fears) won’t vanish overnight.
Corporate capitalism still retains all the conventional tools of distribution, which remain powerful in their ability to create massive exposure. Every time a major established brand sets up a Social Media page, they immediately receive millions of followers. Such is the power of brand loyalty.
Being able to reach everybody, though, is worth little if they’re uninterested in what you have to say.
Exposure without relevance is bark without bite. As FCUK demonstrated, the real power of marketing is the ability to tap into the zeitgeist and ride with the times.
So what exactly is the spirit of our time? One word: conversation. Rather than any one dominant ideology, life in the Internet age is dominated by vigorous debate over any imaginable topic.
This truth is notable in the way Fitch The Homeless has been received in its virality, with online commentators interrogating the motives behind the campaign.
Accordingly, Karber has responded in pragmatic fashion, by pointing out the net positive benefit of the campaign. To and fro, the constant dynamic is one of a public social conversation.
The modern marketer, therefore, has to be a lot more sensitive to market sentiments than his predecessors were. This is an immense challenge, and it requires nothing short of genuine interest and concern. The market demands nothing less.
Today’s consumer rewards personal dialogue over broadcasted information. Any marketer that ignores this risks being rendered obsolete, irrelevant, or worse, a target—just as A&F is experiencing now.
What’s a marketer to do, then?
Make some painful sacrifices and publicly kill some sacred cows, if Fitch the Homeless is any indication.
The markets have spoken. The message is clear.
Out with aspiration. In with inspiration. Goodbye to exclusive and hello, inclusive.
Only when we learn to start conversations instead of prescriptions can we truly begin to engage the consumer across the table, instead of promising false perfections upon pedestals.
Anybody who seeks to rise above the noise and make a impact in the marketplace must realize an indelible truth: that while communication is the heart of technology, hearts are the technology of communication.