In an age where every PR blunder is transmitted across social media, generating petitions and raising the ire of the public, does it still hold that, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity?” Recently reporting a loss of $7.2 million or nine cents per share and investors’ love for the brand waning, Abercrombie & Fitch, the focus of continued negative attention for weeks, might demonstrate not all press is good.
Today’s headlines bring more bad news for the embattled brand, as The Huffington Post spotlights Heather Arnett and a group of teenage girls’ presentation at the Abercrombie & Fitch “campus” in Ohio to convince the brand in 2005 to shift its focus from exclusionary products to inclusive, empowering messages for girls. The line of shirts the brand was selling at the time that had inspired the visit featured messages such as, “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.” and “Do I make you look fat?”
Less than two months after Arnett’s visit, at which time she and her group were directed to look for the brands’ statement of diversity & inclusion to be found on its website, Salon published the now infamous remarks from CEO Mike Jeffries declaring Abercrombie & Fitch to be a brand proud of being exclusionary. “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely?”
To the criticism of many, Mike Jeffries made his brand’s values crystal clear when he said he only wants “thin and beautiful people” to shop in his stores. Although he later took to Facebook to apologize, the fact that the story won’t go away in a world where the 24-hour news cycle gives stories an ever shorter lifespan, indicates maybe it’s time for a larger conversation on brand purpose and the role of the CEO in communicating and executing against a brand’s values.
Strong brands are clear and consistent. They invest the time, energy, and resources to building value systems that transcend into every facet of their operations.
From developing an employee-training manual, the design of a retail flagship, or crafting the message behind an advertising campaign – the world’s leading brands know that these sets of values need to be woven into every touchpoint and experience, which ultimately, consumers come to know and love. Now, in the heat of the backlash spurred by Jeffries’ comments, is an opportunity for Abercrombie & Fitch to turn its attention inward and reaffirm what it stands for as a brand.
While the brand does have a statement on diversity and inclusion on its site, that statement needs to become the blueprint for how it behaves externally. That being said, every A&F employee, from its sales representatives, to Jeffries himself, needs to take the company’s diversity and inclusion policies to heart and walk the talk.
As Interbrand’s Global Practice Leader for Corporate Citizenship Tom Zara tells me, what could be making the difference now in the way the press and public are responding to A&F and the way the world responded in 2006 when the comments were first published in Salon may be the role social media has played in changing how the world relates to brands. Jeffries’ comments have gone viral on Twitter and Reddit and an avalanche of open letters to A&F have appeared in the blogosphere, being shared across Facebook.
While in the past A&F weathered scandals, including thongs aimed at tweens, charges of racism with what were seen as anti-Asian shirts and criticisms that its “maglog” resembles soft porn, in today’s post-digital world as angry consumers take to the blogosphere and social media, the sharing of their outrage can become exponential.
“Without the perception of an authentic effort to turn the brand around, what has been exposed,” Zara says, “is an extreme and ugly take on niche marketing.” Not all brands appeal to all people, and targeted marketing isn’t new, but to deliberately take the power of choice from the consumer to select products based on price points, style and taste and declare a position seen as discriminatory is another thing.
Some have suggested this is just how business is and gone so far as to ask if perhaps Jeffries is a genius. Forbes contributor Roger Dooley wrote a post entitled, The Perverse Brilliance of Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO, but has followed it with This Abercrombie & Fitch Blowup Could Be Different. As Tom Zara points out, “Consumers today want to see that their brands share their values. Values matter more now than ever before.”
Brands that celebrate inclusion have received significant positive public attention. Marks & Spencer, for example, was praised for its 2012 holiday campaign featuring a young model with Down’s Syndrome. Brands like Ikea, JC Penney, Ray Ban and Kindle have famously featured LGBT couples. While Cheerios’ recent ad celebrating diversity in an ad with an interracial couple and biracial child has received some vile backlash, it has also received considerable praise.
As Abercrombie & Fitch’s Todd Corley, Senior Vice President & Global Chief Diversity Officer said in a video on Abercrombie.com, “It’s about making sure we value the person that’s here. It’s about making sure we create diversity champions. Diversity champions, that person, who really makes sure that inside or outside of work they are making certain they are representing the brand in a way that is inclusive to everyone.”
But remember Abercrombie: Everyone means everyone.
Lindsay Beltzer is Senior Associate, Global Marketing & Communications for Interbrand.