Monday, May 13, 2013

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mark Jeffries’ Marketing Mistake

Recently, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mark Jeffries said that his company was only for the “cool kids” – and not for “fat people.”  He explained that Abercrombie & Fitch is a well-defined and specific brand that the company wants to protect. Its target customers are therefore (according to Mr. Jeffries) young, thin and beautiful.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with profiling your customers and being protective of your brand. But as company (and especially as its CEO or CMO) you must be careful how to deliver your message.

Define your brand
A brand it one of the main assets of any company – big or small. There is nothing wrong with Abercrombie & Fitch building a strong brand that people talk about. However, never alienate a customer – jilted customers have long memories, especially if they feel they are being insulted. Although Jeffries’ remarks got a lot of attention, but in this age of (cyber)bullying and its horrible consequences, telling uncool, overweight kids to not buy your brand is just not the way to go.

Not all PR is good PR
The Abercrombie & Fitch brand is not as strong as it used to be. This PR stunt goes by the assumption “all publicity is good publicity”. As any marketing or PR professional can tell you, that’s not true. Moreover, if you are a publicly-traded company, it can even harm you. Creating social media buzz is a double-edged sword that must be yielded carefully. Mark Jeffries is acting like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Social Responsibility
In an era where apparel companies emphasize their social consciousness (fair trade/labor conditions, organic materials, low carbon footprint, etc.), endorsing so-called ideal customers who are cool, thin and attractive is counterproductive. It shows insensitivity to youngsters struggling with body issues and eating disorders. The Duchess of Windsor might have stated that “one can never be too thin”, but we all know now that’s just plain silly.

Be Smart – Think of the Future
Even if Mr. Jeffries thought that his remark served a higher marketing purpose, he harmed his company. Explicitly excluding certain types of customers can backfire in the future for several reasons. For one, apparel is often bought as a gift, which means that parents and grandparents with all kinds of body sizes could buy Abercrombie & Fitch for their skinny and young (grand)children. The CEO for sure ticked those affluent potential customers off with his remark.

Furthermore, the company might decide at one point to branch out to large-size items or a different age group, such as baby boomers or Generation X. Upsetting any demographic group now can backfire in the future.

What will be the fallout of the CEO’s remark? It depends. If the brand can attract enough “young and cool” customers, it will be OK for the immediate future. If not, the brand will suffer, and a new CEO will be hired for damage control. May be it’s time for Mr. Jeffries to dust off his resume?

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