Mark Ritson

You will recall the rather sad story of Abercrombie & Fitch. The once all-powerful fashion retailer declined as a result of ageing customers, bizarre management edicts and over exposure. The company has endured 11 consecutive quarters of declining sales and, in perhaps the most painful blow yet, recently recorded the lowest ever score on the annual ACSI assessment of retailer popularity.

And yet there is a growing sense of optimism swirling around ‘The Campus’ – the company’s HQ set in the woods of central Ohio. The long lines outside Abercrombie that once symbolised its success might not be gone forever. A new management team is working wonders and there is a growing recognition that they might be able to pull this off and, thanks to extremely prudent strategic thinking, make the brand popular again.

The team’s first big insight was not to reposition Abercrombie but to revitalise it. Marketers often confuse or conflate these two concepts into one. A repositioning is a radical attempt to invent a totally new position for an existing brand and it is rarely sustainable. Revitalisation requires a more nuanced strategy in which the brand first returns to its origins to identify its original brand associations and then leaps back to the present and applies them in a new, contemporary way.

In Abercrombie’s case, its story did not begin with darkened stores and shirtless teens. The brand originated in 1892 as an upscale expedition and sporting goods store and throughout most of the 20th century was famed for its quality clothing and focus on the outdoors. Abercrombie’s new direction is, in fact, no such thing. It’s merely a new application of the brand’s original positioning updated for 21st century consumers. Some of the brand’s original century-old advertising, travel guides and ancient products are now proving important touchstones for its very modern reinvention.

Abercrombie & Fitch advert evolution
Abercrombie & Fitch adverts from (left to right): 1909, 2000, 2016

Next up, Abercrombie’s management team spent considerable time recruiting the right creative director. This was no mean feat given the very specific demands that would be placed on the new designer. Whoever the company selected, they would have to be able to reinterpret the brand’s origins as well as possessing a distinctive point of view on the next chapter in high street fashion and also exhibit a genuine flair for the high-quality, comfortable fabrics that once made Abercrombie & Fitch famous.

The choice of Aaron Levine, the former menswear designer from Club Monaco, has proven
an inspired one. His first collection for spring/summer 2016 has won plaudits for its winning combination of understated, practical cool. The designer is also a natural at understanding the new position for Abercrombie and running with it. “It’s an interesting opportunity because we’re involved in re-establishing the brand,” he explained to GQ. “It’s refreshing being in Ohio because the campus is not only beautiful, but filled with immensely talented and smart people. We need to just put on blinders and keep our heads down – look at and obsess over fabric, fit, finish of garments.”

The best part of the puzzle is the brand’s recognition that a new target consumer for the brand would not be needed. Unlike other brands such as M&S, which lost its way with a new generation of consumers and couldn’t hang onto to its ageing existing clients either, Abercrombie was blessed with one of the youngest original customer bases in fashion history. The uber cool 20-year-old frat boy that wore Abercrombie in the early noughties is now a better paid, more laid back 30-something looking to escape the city and experience life. Provided Levine gets the look and feel of the revitalised Abercrombie wardrobe right, the brand could reconnect with the original client that built the company’s success in the first place. Just in (slightly) bigger sizes and at (much) higher price points.

Early indicators look good. Despite the sales decline, Abercrombie’s share price has increased by 50% in the past 12 months. Fashion editors are falling over each other to do something that did not happen during even the hottest days of Abercrombie’s earlier incarnations: write glowing testimonials about the brand and its design credentials.

Typically, when a brand as big and bold as Abercrombie falls foul of the fashion cycle it can take years to return to a similar vaunted position. Twenty years after Levis’ lost its seat at the head of the accessible fashion table it is still waiting for an invite back into the room. And yet if the signs are to be believed, Abercrombie, which was out for less than three years, is very much on the way back in. And this time it is wearing a shirt.

  • Good point, I’m a real believer that with successful brands that end up losing their way a “back to the future” approach is normally the best way forward. Sadly too many marketers seem to want to reinvent the wheel, when what it needs is to understand the original DNA that made it successful and then work on making that relevant for the current times.

    The other american clothing company, that I believe deserves a mention is Ralph Lauren, built on the back of a very clever line extension strategy that builds on their “american” legacy yet continues to make the brand fresh, relevant and in my eyes still very much a coherent strategy.

    RL is a really good example of actually using a brand extension approach that builds and supports the brand, rather than either damages it or attempts to paper over the cracks rather than fix the real core problem.

  • Gareth Abel

    Sounds like they’re repositioning to me : changing their core target customer from early 20s to the 30 somethings.