Strong brands are valuable assets that contribute to sustained revenue growth. But the values behind the brand – what it stands for – is what’s most important. The rise, fall and repositioning of fashion brand Abercrombie and Finch is a great example.
The latest documentary on A&F shows how an iconic all-American fashion brand was built from a forgotten 19th-century outdoors retailer to the epitome of late-’90s teen fashion based on aspirational values of being cool, attractive and mono-cultural. A&F’s brand strategy combined the sex appeal of Calvin Klein and the elite preppiness of Ralph Lauren at more affordable prices. Advertising showcased an army of “ripped” males and good-looking employees were recruited from college fraternities and sororities to be models and store workers.
This “exclusivity” positioning ultimately backfired when it was revealed the company deliberately engaged in “exclusionary” practices in terms of hiring and recruitment – only hiring “cool white kids.” Subsequent lawsuits for discrimination forced the company to settle out of court and make superficial improvements to its increasingly controversial products and practices.
But the damage was done when the company wound up in the US Supreme Court responding to a prominent case of religious discrimination. By this time, those offended by A&F’s brand positioning and marketing practices took to social media. Very quickly, the A&F brand became “uncool” with sales plummeting. A change of CEO led to a compete rethink of what the A&F brand stands for with new campaigns focusing on diversity and inclusion.
What’s the lesson here? Douglas Holt says that an iconic brand enables consumers to think differently about themselves, and goes beyond the product – it’s the identity value that allows them to be at the cutting edge. This was certainly the case with Abercrombie and Finch. The brand deliberately depicted a lifestyle that was culturally relevant to its audience and connected with them on a deeper level, representing a certain selection of cultural values.
The problem with iconic brands is that when accepted cultural norms shift, they must redefine their meaning within this new context. Brands like Apple, Coca Cola and Nike have done this well. Let’s see if it works for Abercrombie & Finch.
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