The story of Abercrombie & Fitch is one of the rise and fall (and rise again) of a retail giant. It’s a story being told on a new Netflix documentary entitled “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.”
But what caused A&F’s downfall? It was basically a combination of exclusionism, racism, sizeism, ableism and the oversexualizing of the brand’s models and even their retail staff, topped off by a toxic corporate culture. This resulted in Abercrombie going from one of the most successful brands in the world of retail apparel to becoming, by 2014, the world’s most hated clothing brand.”
That could have very well spelled the end for A&F. But the brand learned its lessons and raised itself back up to the point where it is once again considered officially cool. That’s quite a feat considering how low it had fallen, and there are some very useful lessons that other brands can take away from A&F’s story.
A&F: The downfall
One of the biggest parts of A&F’s downfall was its exclusiveness.
Granted, it is 100% true that as a brand you want to speak directly to your target market. However, A&F took that sound business principle to the Dark Side. For example, it’s one thing to say, “Our clothes are for people who love fit and active lifestyles.” It’s another thing to say, “If your appearance doesn’t meet our standards, you’re not worth our attention.” This devalues a significant slice of the population, and with shifting societal views it was bound to backfire.
Next, A&F lacked an ability that any brand simply must have nowadays: The ability to “read the room.” What are the current, popular attitudes and beliefs among the demographic groups you’re targeting?
If you do your due diligence on social media, for example, you can see that exclusion is out and inclusion is in. Most other brands, including A&F’s competitors American Eagle Outfitters and others saw that younger consumers — always the spear tip of social change — were shifting towards more inclusive views and they adapted to accommodate that. If you lack the ability to read the room, you need to contract it out and bring in that third-party consultant to come in and do it for you.
Another fatal flaw was Abercrombie’s lack of internal organizational communication. There can be different reasons why a brand may lack good internal communication. In A&F’s case, it was due to toxic and arrogant leadership.
In their own minds, they were all geniuses who could do no wrong. They could put out incredibly racist t-shirts, even, and those t-shirts would fly off the shelves. The problem was that there was not enough internal communication to push back against that recklessness. Even if there were those within the company who knew A&F were playing with fire, they probably didn’t feel like they would be supported given the brand’s toxic internal culture at the time. The former CEO, Mark Jeffries, even responded to public complaints about the brand’s racism with half-hearted lip service to inclusiveness that only managed to offend people further – a clear sign of a leadership that is out of touch.
Lastly, Abercrombie & Fitch were too detailed, rigid and inflexible in their brand guidelines. In their previous heyday, the brand was notorious for having an absurdly detailed set of strict rules for employees (for example, “earrings should not be larger than a dime and should not dangle”). Having a certain level of detail can be good, especially when a brand is just starting out and establishing its identity.
But this approach can only take a brand so far, and beyond that point it can only continue to grow through flexibility.
A&F: The turnaround
So how did Abercrombie & Fitch turn itself around?
Well, they certainly pivoted their marketing in dramatic ways. Instead of focusing on exclusivity, for example, they now feature diversity and inclusiveness in their imagery and hiring practices. The idea of “coolness” that they now embrace isn’t the physically fit and attractive jock or supermodel but the person who, regardless of how they look, is authentic and honest about who they are. But those are just the specifics. More important than the specifics are the principles behind them.
Summed up, those principles can be expressed as the following:
- Listen and pay attention to changing societal trends and attitudes. Read the temperature of the room. If you’re not good at this, hire people who are.
- Improve internal communication. Surround yourself with people who will push back when necessary, and give those people the support they need to feel confident about pushing back.
- Hold your leadership accountable and replace them when necessary. Develop the foresight to do so before a crisis develops, not after it’s spun out of control.
- Be flexible about brand guidelines. Being overly detailed and strict prevents the ability to pivot when needed.
- Don’t just give lip service to values and causes that people care about. Put your money where your mouth is. (Here’s an example of how A&F is doing it.)
As you can probably see, these principles are the exact opposites of what Abercrombie & Fitch previously did to cause their downfall, and the very things that, under new leadership, they’ve done to bring themselves back from the brink of ruin to become a successful brand again.
By taking these principles seriously, and genuinely following them, other brands can also bounce back from their missteps, if needed, or prevent missteps in the first place.
Dr. Dustin York is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University.
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