Can You Build a Brand by Tearing Down Customers?

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, has found itself once again in the middle of controversy. It seems A&F’s CEO doesn’t want any fat people in A&F stores or wearing A&F clothes. Fat people are “uncool,” and only the cool kids need apply as A&F customers (or employees, as this internal style guide suggests).

Leaving aside the fact that A&F probably generates these controversies on purpose—as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”—you have to question the wisdom of building a brand by tearing down potential customers.

A-F 1920

An uncool A&F catalogue from 1920.

A&F wants to be seen as “cool,” and they target the young, beautiful, and upscale. They are entitled to go after this brand positioning, and they are certainly not the first retailer to do so. Plenty of companies—Tiffany, Bentley, Lear Jet—make good money from brands that promote exclusivity. Considering that A&F was founded in 1892 as a sporting goods store, and is now headquartered in Ohio (hardly the epicenter of coolness), it’s remarkable that the clothier has largely succeeded in associating itself with the young and the hot—at least inside the stores.

The problem is, once the product is out the door, A&F’s ability to control the brand disappears, and it’s insistence on its own youth and beauty doesn’t hold up. Just yesterday I observed a seemingly late 20-something wearing an A&F t-shirt. Maybe he was cool, but he definitely was not thin, nor was he a teenager. In addition, in the age of social media, A&F’s actions have prompted a number of responses that seek to work against A&F’s desired brand.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Benetton: a clothing brand that seeks to be as hip and young as A&F, while promoting inclusiveness and a feeling of community. Alienating potential customers might work in the short term—it certainly generates buzz—but doesn’t make sense in the long term. A&F will not have many friends when the time comes, as it inevitably will, that it is deemed “uncool” by the young customers it seeks.

About The Wellynn Group

The Wellynn Group provides senior level counsel in marketing, communications, and public affairs. Hey, and we're nice people, too.
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