Written for TakeON! by Paul Stewart of ON-Brand Partners
Love him or hate him, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries comments about not wanting homeless people to wear his label are absolutely on-brand.
The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) has been taken to task this month forclaiming the brand is only for thin and beautiful people. But the critics are missing a crucial point. For A&F the brand has always been about the image. The brand has always been clear about what it stands for. They are fixated about creating a cool and hip environment where teenagers want to hangout and want to be seen.
In the early days it was their hiring practices that caused the controversy. Anyone who visits A&F knows that almost all their store staff are young, good-looking, and have the distinctive 'American' look. They are referred to as Brand Reps – others call them walking billboards. Not everyone fits the bill.
A&F sees its brand as a class-mark. Typically great brands say something about who you are and what you stand for. Ironically, A&F is a bit of a throw back to the post industrial revolution when brands said more about where you stood in society than what you liked. And Mike Jeffries has reinforced that – homeless people are not good enough to wear A&F, to be part of the club.
And yes, lots of young people want to be in the A&F club. That’s why the brand is successful. Brand reps primary purpose has been to represent that club by hanging about in stores talking to each other. And, oh, yes they will take your money. Service is minimal, wages are low and staff turnover is high.
It’s a valid brand strategy. But it’s not without risk, particularly as societal values change.
Cheap jewellery is a valid strategy too. But, remember, when Gerald Ratner described his products as “total crap” in 1991, both investors and customers deserted and the business was destroyed. Loose lips and lack of empathy can certainly be the undoing of brands.