Abercrombie & Fitch has a very specific brand image, and target audience. You can see it in their marketing, and in their clothes. And, CEO Michael Jeffries clearly articulated that brand image in an article in Salon.com back in 2006:
"Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," he said in the article. "A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong."
Like many fashion brands, A&F sells an image first, product second. They’ve created—through marketing, an aspirational brand for young people who want to believe that how they dress will make them be seen as they want to be seen, as the stereotypical All-American jock—good looking, fit, and popular (and probably with six-pack abs) or the stereotypical All-American cheerleader (replace six-pack abs with voluptuous breasts).
They essentially make sexualized classic clothing for fit young people aged 18-34.
A&F’s marketing—from the models they use in ads, to sales clerks they call “models” embodies this brand image. Even their products represent the brand—with no sizes appropriate for overweight guys or XL women.
Critics see this refusal to offer larger size clothes as A&F’s way of making sure no overweight people are seen wearing their clothes. They’ve created a brand of the “haves” and which is definitely not for the “have nots.”
For a decade or so, most shoppers who feel they don’t fit the A&F brand (both literally and figuratively) have resented being outcasts and stayed away from the brand—stewing and seething with hostility towards the brand.
And lately, a growing and more public protest has been brewing over the idea that A&F doesn’t make plus-size clothes because the company wants only good-looking people walking around showcasing the A&F brand.
The swell of consumer hostility has been growing, thanks to an actor named Benjamin O'Keefe of Orlando who posted a Change.org petition demanding an apology from Abercrombie, and garnering 26,000 signatures so far. And in Los Angeles, a recent college grad named Greg Karper posted a video on YouTube of him handing out Abercrombie clothing to homeless people on Los Angeles' skid row.
Does all of this have an affect? Well, according to consumer perception tracking firm YouGov BrandIndex competitors H&M and American Eagle have seen positive attitudes growing toward those brands among young people 18 to 34 years old, while A&F’s numbers have slumped this week to their lowest level since October.
And what does A&F say about all these protests and negative feelings? CEO Jeffries issued a statement saying in-part that "I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense," he said. "We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."
Still, the company said it still has no plans to offer women's clothing in larger sizes. And while they are entitled to do so, consumers are also entitled to stay away from brands that do not reflect their values. If the brand reputation of Abercrombie’s All-American aspirational jock turns to the All-Entitled jerk, then A&F will surely have some major problems in the future.
Yes, A&F has had the same brand image for decades, but perhaps times have changed, and the current generation of 18-34 year olds are more willing to pick corporate social responsibility over peer pressure and stereotypes.
Ab image courtesy of Shutterstock