Fickle teens can make or break a brand

Scandal has followed Abercrombie & Fitch ever since the clothes brand first broke through in the American market. There were lawsuits from employees fired for apparently not being attractive enough. There were politically incorrect statements from the chief executive that he only wanted “cool kids” to wear its clothes. There was even an intriguing offer to pay the cast of US reality show Jersey Shore to not wear Abercrombie clothes. Read my previous article here.

Mark Ritson

So it’s ironic that the brand has faltered not through these nor any of its other controversial moments but because of a more basic and enduring problem – teenagers.

Abercrombie was once the most-desired fashion brand in the world but those days appear to be over. The company’s stock price has more than halved in the past two years and the brand’s all-important “comps” – the total comparable store sales – decreased by a drastic 10 per cent over the past 12 months.

You don’t need an expensive analyst to explain the reason but let’s ask one anyway. According to Kevin Cook, senior stock strategist for retail analyst Zacks, we should “blame the kids”. Cook points out that in “an era where fashion brands and fortunes are built on the fickle wishes of teenagers (and their parents’ credit cards)” none of us should be surprised at the scale or speed of Abercrombie’s decline.

He is correct, of course, and ‘fickle’ is the key word in his diagnosis of Abercrombie’s problems. It’s also a great single-word summary for the entire youth market. Get your offer right and you can quickly and efficiently recruit millions from this market segment. That was certainly the Abercrombie experience throughout the noughties.

But the fickle sword is sharp on both sides. It’s easy to win share in the teenage market and it’s equally easy to lose it. The teen market is doubly tricky in that respect. Unlike the middle-age segment, where it’s entirely possible to stay in the same broad demographic group for 25 years or more, there are always new kids entering and exiting the seven-year hot-house that marks the teenage segment. And within that segment there are extraordinarily powerful sociological forces at work, with brands playing a significantly important role.

Unlike the adults they will one day become, most teens don’t have jobs or cars or partners or any of the other things that we grown-ups use to create, confirm and communicate our identity to ourselves and to others. Brands have always been a crucial building block of identity for most people, but for teens, shorn of much of the ‘grown up’ cultural stuff that the rest of us rely on, the brands that they do and do not buy signal so much.

It was into this crucible that Abercrombie’s brand was born, boosted and rebuffed. The apparent speed of the brand’s downfall and the remarkable lack of practical strategic fixes that Abercrombie’s able marketing team have at their disposal to reverse the decline should send a chilling message to every brand that makes money from the fickle teen segment.

In particular, the marketing team at Facebook should be quaking in their cyber-boots at the size and speed of Abercrombie’s fall. Ignore the debate about the benefits of Facebook as a marketing tool and consider instead its likely longevity. Do you really imagine that Facebook will remain the de-facto social media standard by the time today’s 13-year-olds exit the teenage segment in 2020? Do you really believe Facebook is somehow immune from the same disease that infected MySpace?

Indeed, the fickle rot may already have started to set in. In May, the Pew Research Center recorded widespread and waning attraction to Facebook among American teens with subjects telling focus group moderators they were switching to Twitter and Instagram because “everyone’s saying Facebook’s dead”. Last week, Mashable published the much debated op-ed piece ‘I’m 13 and None of My Friends Use Facebook’ by Ruby Karp, who listed issues such as “trying too hard” and being a “marketing mouthpiece” among her many gripes.

The data supporting a teen defection from Facebook remains qualitative at this stage. I am certainly in no position to suggest that Facebook is already losing teen users or that they are already spending less time on the site. But the key lesson from Abercrombie is that while Facebook’s teen downfall may not yet be upon us, it is nonetheless inevitable and will be expeditious once it begins.