In the early 1990s, former CEO Michael Jeffries took the retailer into dangerous and exciting territory with a provocative approach to targeting, positioning and retail execution. He explicitly went after young, popular, attractive kids as his focus and then adopted an astonishing array of disruptive visual merchandising tactics to win them over.
From six-pack wielding guardians at the entrance to the highly stylised sales assistants known as ‘models’ on the shop floor, Abercrombie became the standard bearer for the fascism of teenage fashion. The brand not only excelled at targeting its core customers but also in turning off non-target shoppers. Abercrombie’s sizes were steadfastly unwearable for those with anything but the tightest of waists and hardest of bodies and its stores were famously designed to be so dim and loud that anyone over the age of 30 literally had no idea what was going on inside.
It was a masterclass in many of the major elements in brand management, until it stopped working. For 20 years, Abercrombie surfed the teenage fashion wave with astonishing verve but that fickle market was always going to fade at some point. Since the start of the decade, Abercrombie has posted 12 straight quarters of same store decline. Last December, CEO Jeffries exited his role.
Last Friday, we learned that the retailer was intent on a new direction. Its new leadership team announced it would stop hiring sales staff on “body type or physical attractiveness” and will relax its infamous “look policy” so that employees can dress in a more individualistic way. Sales staff will now be called “brand representatives” and stores will also offer an “improved sensory experience” with alterations to lighting and sound levels.
Merchandise will also change. Larger sizes will be introduced along with an expansion of its children’s line. The brand will end its overtly sexualised marketing with the iconic images of half-naked teenagers removed from its advertising in store and out. Finally, and perhaps most indelibly, the six-pack wielding guardians are going to be stood down.
For the politically-correct citizens of the US, the moves could not come soon enough. Abercrombie’s disruptive activities have caused headlines and law suits aplenty in its country of origin. Clearly, the new management team are keen to appease critics while reversing the continued sales decline. Fran Horowitz, president at Abercrombie’s Hollister brand and one of the executives in charge of the new direction, said the company was intent on changing for the better. “We do have very strong, iconic brands, and our intent is to make sure that we keep the spirit of those things alive while modernising what’s happening here,” she said.
It all sounds clear and positive, however the problem is that Abercrombie hasn’t revitalised its brand but eradicated it. When a company revitalises its brand, it goes through history to isolate what made it special and then leaps forward to the present and asks what that means for the customer. With Abercrombie, it appears that the brand has simply removed everything that once made it special and replaced it with inane ‘genericism’. “It is going to turn up the lights and put shirts on the dudes, but there’s no accompanying story,” explained Jeff Gomez, CEO at Starlight Runner Entertainment Inc, a production company that advises executives on branding. “That is a big danger for Abercrombie.”
The danger Gomez speaks of is an ironic one. After two decades of success from provocative and on-brand differentiation, the new Abercrombie might have jettisoned the elements that caused trouble over the years, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to replace them. Short of a vision or any form of revitalisation strategy the brand looks set to become no more than an upgraded Gap – aimed at everyone and no one and offering the kind of anodyne store experience that will render it little more than a ‘me too’ retailer.