brands under fire

Why A&F's 'Cool Kids' Stance Will Damage the Brand Now More Than Ever

Posted by Abe Sauer on May 13, 2013 11:48 AM

"No fatties." That's the underlying concept of the latest outrage about fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch.

But what's the bigger threat for the brand? Some controversial comments the CEO made seven years ago, or cultural irrelevance? The fact that Abercrombie has to go back more than a half decade to gin up some outrage about its brand may demonstrate that the brand's most significant days are in the past.

Abercrombie & Fitch's latest "scandal" is some years-old quotes from the company's CEO about only wanting attractive, "cool" young customers combined with the revelation that the brand does not make size XL or above for women. Many have grabbed the news and turned it into a public campaign against the brand, dredging up all kinds of tangential complaints about Abercrombie & Fitch (such as the above one about homeless people). Yes, of course there is a petition.

"On the one hand, I'm surprised that people are now up-in-arms about a fairly pedestrian and undeniably ancient quote," Jenna Sauers, a former model who covers fashion regularly for Bookforum, the Village Voice, the New York Observer, and told brandchannel. "On the other hand," Sauers added, "there are plenty of reasons to criticize Abercrombie & Fitch."

Indeed, really, who hasn't Abercrombie & Fitch offended? In 2002, the brand was the focus of outrage about Asian stereotyping. A decade later, the passages from an employee manual for CEO Mike Jeffries' corporate jet leaked (stewards must "spritz" themselves with Abercrombie & Fitch #41 cologne) and a model sued for sexual harassment. In 2011, the brand even managed to insult the Jersey Shore cast after offering—in what now seems like a good move—to pay the cast not to wear Abercrombie clothing. That same year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations took up the case of an employee fired for wearing her hijab. "Controversy and Criticism" is one of the longest sections of the brand's Wikipedia entry. As a man with body hair, I've felt slighted by the brand for years, and as Sauers noted, the quote itself actually dates back to an earlier controversy about body-type discrimination.

"Jeffries' comments aren't surprising to anyone familiar with the company history or values, and nor would the sentiment behind them be beyond the ken of anyone who's ever so much as glanced at an Abercrombie ad," said Sauers, describing A&F's target market as for "'cool' kids and 'cool' kids only."

This kind of criticism has worked wonders for the brand, making it a signifier of rebellion against everything youths hate from political correctness to societal norms. In 2000, the brand scored an incredible PR coup when its racy catalog got it banned at conservative Bob Jones University. Parents—because they understand branding even less than they understand teenagers—have, over the years, publicly made Abercrombie & Fitch one of the biggest targets of their outrage. It's a favor that really deserves some dividend payments.

And those dividend payments prove, in anything, that investors see A&F scandals as reasons to buy the brand's stock. Since the latest uproar over the old remarks became social media fodder, Abercrombie & Fitch's stock price has climbed almost four percent. Such a reaction even has precedent. In the two months after the brand lost a $40 million class-action racial discrimination lawsuit in April 2005, its stock price climbed nearly 28 percent.

But there is reason to believe that A&F's latest trafficking in controversy may not be all good for the brand.

Even with a recent climb over the $50 a share threshold, A&F is way off its peaks of 2007, when the brand traded above $80 a share. Moreover, as Forbes recently pointed out, the faded, low-rise-jeaned, flannel-shirted sector that Abercrombie practically invented is now littered with (often cheaper) competitors like American Eagle Outfitters. Even Abercrombie's messaging has been diluted. Over a decade ago, its A&F Quarterly catalog was including content such as drinking advice and porn star interviews, content now regularly covered by publications such as Vice magazine.

Ironically, if anything will do in the Abercrombie brand it will be the strength of the brand itself.

Like the Hummer and Von Dutch, Abercrombie & Fitch represents an American era that many Americans might rather put behind them. The rise of "hipster" fashion—the kind now popular from Urban Outfitters and H&M—has also presented a direct challenge to A&F's pre-economic meltdown "bro" positioning. Instead of attempting to absorb some elements of the bearded, artisanal, multiculturalist hipster trends, Abercrombie has doubled down, becoming a kind of parodic version of itself. This brand positioning is thrown into no better relief than by the recent Chippendales-inspired Abercrombie video for the hit song "Call Me Maybe." Addressing this change, Sauers thinks a new class of young customers might be very turned off by this perfect, "snooty cool-kids-only vibe." Sauers points to the source of the latest outrage as the biggest reason Abercrombie might want to worry:

"It's interesting that, unlike previous waves of outrage directed at Abercrombie—for instance the "thongs for kids" kerfuffle of 2002—this one seems to be led not by concerned parents, but by teenagers on social media. In the first instance, it's easy to paint the first kind of critic as old, conservative, and out of touch—Abercrombie dealt with the thongs controversy by pulling the product, yes, but also by dog-whistling to its customer base that hey, Abercrombie sold sexy clothes that made your parents mad. In the second instance, it's a lot harder to find a way to profit from outrage if the outrage is being generated by the people who are your customer base in the form of petitions and incessant critical Tweets. Maybe Abercrombie's vision of the high school caste system is getting a little dated. Teens seem to think so."

In the 2012 hit film based on the show 21 Jump Street, two young policemen go undercover in a high school years after graduating in the early 2000s. Basing their ideas of how to be cool from their own era, the pair are confused to find environmentalism, earnestness, compassion and "two-strapping" have suddenly become cool while their own, early 2000s posturing is offensive. Abercrombie could suddenly be learning the same lesson.


eric United States says:

he is gay... which isnt a problem if he WANTED EVERYONE TO BE GAY... he wont accept "non gay" models. my friend who is very attractive( im a dude and ill admit it) wasnt "chosen" as a high executive because he wouldnt suck dudes dick.......

May 15, 2013 02:46 AM #

Jeremie United States says:

This is from the mouth of my teenage daughter "Dad, I don't want Ambercrombie and Fitch clothes, are you kidding!?. Anyone who wears A&F is telling the people around them that they think they are cool, and that makes them VERY UNCOOL. Nobody likes the people who wear that brand. Nobody. So please don't buy me any of those. Not even the gay kids in our school will wear that crap!"

May 15, 2013 08:52 AM #

jon United States says:

feel free to email the CEO:

May 15, 2013 11:29 AM #

sonsern United States says:

Many believe that the whole idea of #fitchthehomeless is degrading because the homeless people are being used to contrast the idea of cool. The attempt to #fitchthehomeless looks down upon homeless people as "unworthy," or lesser human beings. And it’s not clear how or whether, from the homeless perspective, this stunt is actually helping anything.

P1124 is another company in contention for the title of no. 1 brand of the homeless. P1124 has started a “Wear One, Share One” campaign to clothe the same group homeless people on Skid Row.  But unlike the #fitchthehomeless movement, whose goal is to shame Abercrombie without regard to the wellbeing of the homeless, P1124's goal is to uplift and bless the homeless.  The “Wear One, Share One” Campaign is simple; buy one shirt, get two, one to wear, one to share.  The goal is to #uplifthehomeless, and show them that they are worthy of receiving the same new clothes that we purchase for ourselves.

Very interesting… P1124 is currently raising funds on indegogo, check it out:

May 16, 2013 07:09 AM #

hank United States says:

If the CEO of A & F doesn't like seeing fat or unattractive people wearing his clothes ( AND IRONICALLY SO BECAUSE HE IS BOTH )- the next step beyond handing out these clothes to Homeless people is to encourage turbaned Muslims wearing them. Better yet, stitch two A & F shirts together and give them to the fat they leave their weight watchers meetings. Post those images on Facebook, and set it to go Viral.
I am deeply encouraged by the young teens of today: Snubbing uber preppy overpriced clothing brands designed for pretentious and insecure people, and appointing handicapped students as the Prom King and Queens of their high schools. This is a huge departure from my own high school experiences in the 1980's. Let's give teens Huge Credit for seeing through the B.S.

May 16, 2013 10:56 AM #

abrar United States says:

Really offensive brand, i'm also a teenager, and a lot more cool than average  so called 'cool' teenagers, with income more than $30,000 while being even below 20 years, and running a business, that's cool, you fags ;)

May 17, 2013 12:14 PM #

Comments are closed

elsewhere on brandchannel

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
brandcameo2014 Product Placement Awards
Apple loses its crown to a new #1
Coca-ColaIt's the Journey That Matters:
Coca-Cola Opens Up With Story-Based Web Refresh
debateJoin the Debate
Is product placement a waste of money?
Arthur Chinski and Joshua Mizrahi
Model Behavior? Brands Beware
U.S. Legal Changes Impact Use of Brand Ambassadors
paperCorporate Citizenship in Canada
Fresh thinking from Interbrand
Sheryl Connelly
Sheryl Connelly

Meet Ford's Resident Futurist
Highlighting the Present—and Future—of Branding in Latin America and Iberia