All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. —1984, George Orwell
Negative thirteen cents. That’s the result of 20 years of share price activity for brand Abercrombie & Fitch. Offered at $16 a share in September 1996, Abercrombie & Fitch closed this week at $15.87 a share. In those 20 years, the brand became a cultural and fashion icon, peaked at over $84 a share in 2007, and in turn became a cultural and fashion pariah, the brand that destroyed itself with an refusal to see the future.
Now the brand is relaunching in an attempt to rebuild its relevance and profitability. In the process, it has deleted its social media history, erased its YouTube library, redesigned its website and is now using terms like “more diverse and inclusive culture” when just three years ago its CEO created a firestorm for favoring only thin customers with comments like: “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes].”
But can a brand with such a strong identity redefine itself? Why not, it did once already. But it won’t be easy. Or fast.
— Abercrombie & Fitch (@Abercrombie) October 13, 2016
“People have a lot to say about us. They think they have us figured out,” reads the new Abercrombie & Fitch campaign. The message is a defiant attempt to neutralize what will be the expected criticism about the rebrand. The insinuation is that the brand Abercrombie & Fitch worked hard to create and curate for decades isn’t the Abercrombie & Fitch brand at all — and if you think it is, you’re the one that’s wrong.
Curious? Check back tomorrow.
— Abercrombie & Fitch (@Abercrombie) October 12, 2016
To aid with the monumental job of forgetting, Abercrombie has scrubbed its social media channels—YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ (but not Tumblr, oddly)—of any content posted before yesterday. No shirtless models. No record of its half-hearted rebrand in 2014. No record of its commitment to using clothed models in 2015. Even the “About Us” section of the brand’s website has been wiped clean.
As far as today’s Abercrombie’s brand is concerned, its only activity was getting trademarked in 1892, and it’s got a blank slate to move forward. Upon this naked landscape, Abercrombie will release a whole new identity that, according to Fran Horowitz, President and Chief Merchandising Officer, “reflects that confidence and independence of spirit as well as our own dedication to a more diverse and inclusive culture.” In practice, that means the new Abercrombie looks a lot like a hybrid of Gap and J.Crew, with a flannel dash of American Eagle thrown in for good measure.
On the brand’s revamped website, a video features a cast of multiracial young models frolicking in wholesome, woodsy Americana in cozy sweaters and fuzzy hats for its holiday campaign. Its new tagline: “Enduring Style. Always Evolving.” This new vision, according to Horowitz, shows “our own dedication to a more diverse and inclusive culture.”
As its press release on the brand refresh notes,
The holiday campaign will be introduced with “teaser” advertising designed to pique consumers’ interests, challenge their notions of the ANF brand and encourage them to explore the changes that have taken place at ANF over the past two years. The message in the first phase — People have a lot to say about us. They Think They’ve Got Us Figured Out — will be followed up with the holiday messaging, This is Abercrombie & Fitch, illustrated by images that are optimistic, inclusive, and emotional.
The brave new Abercrombie’s rebrand, the result of a year and a half of research and planning, is kicking off in time for holiday shopping season and includes outdoor billboards and signage in a marketing blitz meant to startle and refresh its perception.
Strong brands have to work extra hard to change direction. And one has to wonder where that extra hard work appears in this new Abercrombie identity. The models are all still haute and lithe. One woman strikes a topless tease. Given the recent negative brand association, why not include a plus-size model? Indeed, in the XL selection of the brand’s new online shop, the models are all zeros. And some women’s shirts are only offered in sizes XS-L. Maybe what people thought they knew about the brand was, in fact, all they needed to know to figure it out.
Some might say Abercrombie’s task is impossible. But history shows that’s not true. The brand, trademarked in the 19th century, was once best known as an outfitter to such stodgy names as Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. And yet from there it redefined itself as synonymous with youthful sex appeal. It’s never too late for a brand to change. But that change has to be more than a slogan, it has to be that unending series of victories over memory.