Monday, 11 May 2015

End of an era: Sex no longer sells for Abercrombie & Fitch

The winds of change are blowing through the department stores of the clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch. Established in 1892 in New York by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch, the brand was originally a purveyor of sporting goods as well as shotguns, fishing rods and camping equipment. After filing for bankruptcy, A&F was revived in 1978 as a mail order company specialising in hunting clothing. By the early 90’s the company’s direction changed once again, this time by focusing on the youth market and targeting aspirational “casual luxury” buyers. 

Sexualised advertising has become synonymous with the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch and its offshoot brands, Hollister and Gilly Hicks. Shirtless models adore the shop front for each new store opening. Inside the store attractive All-American looking staff make the brand come alive by serving customers with shopping bags featuring the latest fashion pin ups. For almost a quarter of a century, the provocative use of advertising has helped to establish A&F as a leading fashion brand. The problem is, this tactic is no longer working.

Abercrombie & Fitch share price is in free-fall and dropped 39% in the last 12 months alone. Its merchandise appears to have lost its uniqueness and has been labelled as stale and unappealing by the millennial generation they are targeting. The company has also been criticised heavily in the media after comments made by the CEO that the brand is only for "the good-looking, cool kids".


As part of a major rebranding, the executives at Abercrombie & Fitch are looking to reposition the company and the way they interact with customers. Last week they announced that they would no longer hire employees based on their body type and physical attractiveness. Rather than be known as models, the in store staff will now become “brand representatives”. By the end of July, all sexualised images will be replaced with new advertising designed to portray a more wholesome image.

So where did it all go wrong?

As with so many other successful companies that fell on hard times, A&F simply failed to adapt to a changing marketplace. You could say they fell asleep at the wheel of a billion dollar multinational company and hoped that their reputation alone would sustain their success. They didn’t follow consumer trends or insight gained from market research until it was almost too late. It will be interesting to see if this radical change in direction can help to transformation the fortunes of their flagship stores.

Abercrombie & Fitch has already had several major changes in direction since its creation; this may be just the latest one. To be successful again they must listen to their audience and redefine the brand's image without loosing its history and legacy. If they want to continue selling to a younger audience, they must understand what is “cool” to this segment and find ways to connect to them with effective marketing. Building a better picture of their audience through gaining meaningful insights and foresights is essential in defining the brands image going forward.

Robert Brunning
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

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