Years and years ago, Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries spoke to Salon magazine about his company’s brand:
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
This has made some people very angry.
“I hate Abercrombie and would never wear their stuff, but they should still make clothing for me.” — some people right now.
“I don’t like how Mike Jeffries criticizes people for how they look, so I’m going to criticize him for how he looks.” — more people right now.
If Abercrombie doesn’t make clothing that fits you, then don’t buy it. If your concern is that no popular brands make clothing that fits you or with the image that brands like Abercrombie perpetuate, then your problem is not with Abercrombie but with the culture that contains Abercrombie.
Physical appearance is a touchy issue
People are angry with Mike Jeffries because they believe it is wrong to sell to people based largely on how attractive they are—and people are certainly entitled to feeling that way. But I find it hard to argue that it is an immoral or even wrong way to segment a crowded market.
But for some reason, image and appearance are touchy issues; it makes people feel more uncomfortable and more insecure than other forms of discrimination, perhaps because they haven’t accepted that the world doesn’t quite work the way that they have inexplicably determined that it should.
Abercrombie electrified the dissonance some people feel between what they believe is fair and what is fact, with who they are and who they want to be, with who they can be and who they will never be. So while you can argue that it is insensitive of Mike Jeffries to make a spectacle of this old-as-time divide between the haves and the have-nots, there is no place to assert moral superiority over a man just because he is trying to do the same thing to others.
Abercrombie’s critics are too riled up to act sensibly
Abercrombie is a powerful brand that has connected emotionally with people and galvanized its harshest critics to do good for humanity by driving them to donate Abercrombie clothing to the homeless. While it’s great that this situation puts attention on homelessness in a country of increasingly unequal socioeconomic conditions, it’s worth noting that the campaign’s goal is not to clothe the homeless.
The campaign instead aims “to make Abercrombie & Fitch the world’s number one brand of homeless apparel.” That’s right. The sole objective is to tarnish the Abercrombie brand by clothing the homeless in it. The homeless are but a pawn in this game, a means to an end. These critics find the Abercrombie brand so heinous, so morally wrong, that they want to dress and brand the country’s least fortunate people in their clothing to prove a point that was never all that solid to begin with.
Abercrombie may be a controversial brand, but it’s not an immoral one. This campaign to “rebrand Abercrombie” reeks of hot-headed rage. Its desire to destroy the brand under the guise of philanthropy feels much more malicious than Abercrombie’s choosing to cater to a specific consumer segment. These people don’t care about the homeless— at least not until Abercrombie expressed disdain toward them. They only care to see Abercrombie burn.
This isn’t the first time a major brand has come under attack for its values. Chick-fil-A experienced an almost identical backlash when their stance on LGBT rights—and donations to opposing causes—was publicized in late 2012. This drove gay rights supporters through the roof, leading some to organize a “kiss in” at Chick-fil-A outlets nationwide to protest.
The goal of that campaign was nebulous at best, but the strategy was to drive gay people to Chick-fil-A restaurants to make out in their dining rooms. I’m still unclear as to what that was supposed to accomplish. At most, I can see it making some people very angry and uncomfortable, which will in turn would cause them to act out with the same senselessness as their opposition.
Nothing good comes from this; nothing good comes from losing your cool. That is what happened when Chick-fil-A ignited passions, and it’s exactly what’s happening right now with Mike Jeffries and Abercrombie.
What it means for marketing
I really appreciate what Erika Napoletano has to say about unpopularity—especially when it comes to brands. “The world needs more brands like Chick-fil-A,” she has said in her TED Talk about rethinking unpopular (which I highly highly recommend everyone check out). And she’s right. The world needs more brands with values, whether you agree with them or not. To each his own—there’s plenty to go around.