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3 Things NOT To Do In Fashion Marketing: The Reasons Why Abercrombie & Fitch Went Downhill

by Svenja Solveig Pleye

If you’re about my age then you probably also grew up loving Abercrombie & Fitch and hey, that’s ok. Nothing wrong with that. But even if you’re not a fan of the brand (anymore), I’m sure you’re somewhat familiar with it based off on its past popularity that you might be wondering why it went downhill and pretty much disappeared out of everyone’s mind. There are some key takeaways from A&F’s story which you should definitely consider when marketing your own brand. Do you want to find out how to keep your fashion brand alive? Keep reading.

Before we can take a deep dive into what went wrong with Abercrombie, let’s take a quick step back and refresh our minds on what made the brand so popular in the beginning. Even though the label was founded in 1892, Abercrombie & Fitch as we nowadays know it was born when Mike Jeffries became the CEO in the 1990s. Jeffries started focusing on today’s youth, especially teens and created a great Marketing Mix. The product was preppy kids and teen wear which ranked from t-shirts to dress shirts, skirts, jeans, dresses, and accessories. All of them were somewhat on the pricier side but also had a pretty good quality which made everyone feel like it’s a good price-quality ratio. You could purchase them either online or in-store, but let’s be honest: Whoever bought something online back then? It was all about the in-store experience which was Abercrombie’s unique promotion. There were only a limited amount of stores, usually in the big cities, which in fact even increased the desirability of the fashion items. Abercrombie & Fitch stores pretty much became the pilgrimage site where you would go to with all your friends. Another thing that was so special about the stores was the dimmed lighting and the music which gave you the impression that you’re not in a store anymore but actually a super fancy club. Combined with the signature smell of the A&F cologne, it was an experience for all the human senses. Also, let’s not forget the shirtless male greeters that every girl was super excited about to snap a photo with.

Recapturing all that it seems weird that after years of success in the market Abercrombie would take a big hit. But that’s exactly what happened after this statement by Mike Jeffries during an interview in 2006 with Salon Magazine:

With this in mind let’s talk about the three reasons why Abercrombie & Fitch hasn’t recovered from this scandal up to this day and what you as a fashion marketer can do to not make the same mistakes and keep your brand desirable. So, what NOT to do:

#1 Don’t Forget Your Audience

I guess I don’t have to tell you how disgusted I am by Jeffries’s statement. But I see it differently today, being a full adult. Back then it lead to a completely different reaction: It made me feel bad about myself. Because when you’re a teenager, you don’t see things rationally and just see Abercrombie’s CEO as the fatphobic person that he is. What you do is you start questioning yourself if you’re cool enough to wear the brand. Am I attractive enough? Am I popular enough? Am I maybe too big to be ‘’allowed’’ to wear the clothes? This is crazy but this is true for teens. Kids or (pre-)teens are already at the most vulnerable stage of growing up and very sensitive to anything in their social environment. So when you tell them that your brand is ‘’only for the skinny, cool kids’’, a lot of them will start seeing themselves even more critically. And who believes that parents would buy their children clothes of a brand that supports such a toxic image? – Exactly. So don’t forget who’s listening when opening your mouth next time, Jeffries. Oh and if we’re already giving ideas for improvement: Be a better human being, thanks.

#2 Don’t Lose Your Concept

Luckily Abercrombie was wise enough to drop Mike Jeffries at some point after this scandal went viral but the damage to the brand had been done. Instead of rebuilding the customers’ trust, the brand however focused on rebranding – again and again. As part of that A&F said goodbye to the shirtless male greeters and given that non-fans always complained about the ‘’bad store lighting’’, they also said goodbye to the club/party atmosphere you were used to from the stores. So what if your store lighting was criticized? That really wasn’t why sales went down, Abercrombie, trust me. So with getting rid of the unique atmosphere, Abercrombie & Fitch stores started to look like any other store and ruined their popular concept right there. In addition to that, I noticed that the brand started opening up stores in various small cities in Germany such as Zweibrücken, and at the same time shut down some of the major stores in big cities like Düsseldorf and Munich. This doesn’t only feel random but is also against the original brand’s concept which was promoting exclusivity through a limited amount of stores. And let’s not forget the key component: the product itself. Now targeting an older audience approximately between 18 and late 20s, Abercrombie is now selling simpler fashion which is more mature but at the same time doesn’t have a unique appeal like the old collections used to have. What is even worse is that prices went up so much, that you’re looking at about $100 for a simple, average summer dress of pretty poor quality – I’ll pass. Desirability pretty much equals zero at this point.

#3 Don’t Adapt Too Late

Finally, let’s get back to the essence of Jeffries’ statement again, shall we? The essence is that Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t inclusive. You would think that after the huge backlash from the statement, the fashion brand would’ve learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Even though they were promoting including bigger sizes, in reality, this only held true for selective items and most of them were also not available in store. You can’t call that learning your lesson if you have to keep telling customers to ‘’better look for your size online’’. And do you know when they came up with a curvy jeans collection tailored to bigger bodies? – Last year, in 2020. I guess it’s pretty clear that a brand that outed itself as being fatphobic, only committed weak attempts to be more inclusive AND be more or less the last mover doesn’t appear trustworthy. After all, who didn’t fit in an Abercrombie shirt or jeans back then, isn’t very likely to come back to this brand new as is it leaves you with a bitter aftertaste.

If you learned anything today by reading this post, I hope it’s to always remember your audience, to be consistent in your concept and communication, and to adapt in time. When you market your brand you have to always think about your customer first and obviously not give them the feeling that most of them aren’t good enough for you. You want to make sure that you have a clear idea of what you want to represent as a company and as a brand – which ideally is socially acceptable – and what your values are. And yes of course you might consider rebranding – without feeling the need to because of a scandal, I hope – but do it in a way that your audience doesn’t get confused about your brand’s concept. Thus you shouldn’t act against everything you’ve represented before and that made you popular. Ultimately, you have to adapt to your target group as they keep evolving in a consistent and timely manner.

Did this post get you excited and craving for more? This was just the beginning! – Stay tuned for next week’s post where you’ll learn another interesting facet of the world of Fashion Marketing.

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