Recently Michael Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch since 1992, was forced out of the faltering retailer following 11 consecutive quarters of declining sales. Jeffries had been the driving force behind the revitalization of Abercrombie when he took the struggling company with fishing and hunting origins and repositioned it as the “it brand” for teen clothing. A carefully curated culture of exclusivity, driven and shaped by Jeffries, was used to draw young consumers into the desirable lifestyle brand. From lush corporate headquarters, to impeccably styled retail stores, to participation in Fashion Week, to the iconic catalogs shot by famed photographer Bruce Weber, emphasis was placed on all things considered “attractive.”
Furthermore, Jeffries inspected every garment, made personnel hiring decisions, and created a unique retail experience to convey the Abercrombie brand image. His unrelenting control helped to incubate and grow a culture of exclusivity that was valued and sought out by his targeted demographic. The marketing execution was excellent, and at one time the brand reigned supreme – so why did it fail to sustain its success?
The rise of “fast fashion,” a term used to describe the way designs presented during Fashion Week quickly move from the catwalk to mainstream retail outlets in order to capture current fashion trends, played a part, as more young people sought less expensive clothing at stores like Forever 21 and H&M. This was true especially after the recession, when the expense of premium brands became more difficult to justify.
More detrimental, however, was the brands’ constant emphasis on its own exclusivity to the point of alienating its customers. The brand went from fostering an exclusive culture that young consumers aspired to, to becoming the bully brand that pushed people out. The best example of this was, in 2006, when Jeffries said “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”.
There have always been high-end brands that have marketed exclusivity. Chanel has historically led the high-end fashion space with exceptional design and quality. The key distinction between Chanel and Abercrombie is that the former never determined that certain consumers were not welcome.
Over time, Abercrombie’s core customers preferences became less focused on the exclusivity of the brand and instead began to favor the ability to express individuality through their sartorial choices. Despite this important change- in his target audience’s, Jeffries remained steadfast in his refusal to drop prices or back down from the exclusionary brand ethos. Abercrombie introduced new store concepts like Ruehl No. 925 (a brand aimed at men and women in their 20s) and Gilly Hicks (an intimate apparel retailer that has since been shuttered), in an attempt to retain young consumers as they entered into adulthood. These attempts, based off of the idea that Abercrombie was still an exclusive brand (rather than an exclusionary brand) marketed to the same consumer the retailer had always pursued, were unsuccessful.
As the company continued to excel at maintaining the world of Abercrombie that Jeffries created, their decline should not be attributed to poor marketing execution or expression of the brand at retail. Instead, I would argue that the problem was the failure of the brand to maintain an identity that consumers could aspire to. Instead, it allowed the brand to devolve into one that was elitist rather than elite.
Abercrombie, now unencumbered by the ex-CEO’s influence, has the opportunity to redefine and reshape a brand that it can effectively market. The company should look to leading high-end brands like Chanel to see how great brands create a culture consumers want to be associated with. This approach will enable Abercrombie to cultivate a brand that draws aspirational consumers in, rather than drawing a boundary to keep them out.