The gloves are off: the rise of anti-marketing

Recent events in the US have brought Abercrombie & Fitch’s exclusionist approach to targeting back into the public eye. Californian writer Greg Karber was so incensed by Abercrombie chief executive Mike Jeffries’ comments about how his brand exclusively focuses on the young, the thin and the popular that he decided to take action.

Mark Ritson

Where other righteous citizens before him simply denounced A&F on social media to their – let’s be honest here – old and uncool friends, Karber did something far more radical. He used anti-marketing.

Karber purchased as much old Abercrombie clothing as he could from thrift stores and then gave all of it away to the homeless. Using the hashtag #FitchTheHomeless and a video posted on YouTube Karber then promoted the practice globally. So far, more than 7 million people have watched his YouTube video.

It’s easy to miss just how smart this move really is. Karber has reviewed the targeting strategy of A&F and then attempted to destroy it by using the exact opposite marketing approach. If Abercrombie builds its brand by associating with only the young, the thin and the popular, then anti-marketing will break its brand by associating it with the old, the unwanted and the lost. Let’s skip the whole debate about whether Karber is little better than Jeffries because he is now objectifying the homeless and reinforcing their status as society’s unwanted people – I am already conflicted enough with Abercrombie. Stay focused on anti-marketing.

Anti-marketing happens when any traditional marketing tactic is used to weaken brand equity and thus reduce a brand’s overall appeal.

It’s a peculiar idea. We usually assume that the tools of marketing will only be used in the service of brand building. But what about when equally clever marketing strategies are applied to break a brand? Anti-marketing is the best term for it and it transpires that our discipline is just as powerful when driven in reverse.

In 2001, when Greenpeace began a major campaign to increase the focus on how Exxon Mobil was delaying and disrupting the Kyoto agreement on climate change, it opted for anti-marketing. Rather than create a message of its own, Greenpeace took ESSO’s familiar blue and red logo and re-presented it with dollar signs, replacing the name ESSO with the more startling E$$O.


Why stop at logos? We all know they are a relatively weak way to build brands. Ergo, they are hardly likely to do significant damage when used as part of an anti-marketing campaign. Better to use a stronger approach, like product placement.

Most marketers know that Ford paid millions to the producers of the Bond movies to promote its vehicles in recent years. It was common knowledge that the company paid north of £20m to promote its marques – which at the time included Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar – in the film Die Another Day.

But was it a coincidence that the five cars that appeared in the film that weren’t produced by Ford were all older models and that all met an untimely end during the film? Two Ferraris, a Porsche 911, a Mercedes SL and a Lamborghini Diablo were either destroyed, damaged or – and this might be a strong clue that anti-marketing was afoot- dropped out of the back of a plane at 30,000 feet.

How about using celebrity endorsement in an anti-marketing campaign? Last year there were rumours that the star of MTV show Jersey Shore, Snooki, (famed for throwing up in her handbags) was being sent luxury branded bags. But celebrity blogs were abuzz with the suggestion that the bags in question were being sent by competitor companies in a blatant attempt to use bad celebrity association to cause their rivals reputational harm.

Even your own employees and your service model can be used in the cause of anti-marketing. In one of the first academic studies of its kind, authors Elaine Wallace and Leslie de Chernatony recently published a paper in the journal of Product and Brand Management in which they identified “service brand sabotage” a significant issue for retail banks. Using more than 400 interviews with banking employees they identify employee fear, overwork and compliance demands as factors that drive this anti-marketing phenomenon.

Nothing is sacred in the parallel universe of anti-marketing. Black is white. Up is down. And brands are very much for the breaking as well as building.



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