How ‘exclusivity’ can backfire as a branding strategy

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At the core of every branding strategy is the need to stand out with a clear brand message that connects
with your target market. What happens then when your brand message doesn’t hit the right note? Well,
as Abercrombie & Fitch, an American clothing retailer has found out, it is time to change the message.

In 2013, the then CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mike Jeffries unleashed a firestorm of controversy when
the comments he made in a 2006 Salon interview went viral. In the interview he defended the company’s
policy of selling only certain sizes (0-10). “In every school there are the cool and popular kids,
and then thereare the not-so-cool kids,” he said. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids …
A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Since then, Mike Jeffries has repeatedly defended their “cool kids’ strategy” and this approach has been
reinforced in their hiring policies where looks and body type are the main criteria. The company has also
courted numerous racial discrimination allegations by African-American models who claimed they were
asked to go home early when Mike Jeffries was supposed to make a visit. A few years ago, they were
also taken to court by a Muslim lady who claims she wasn’t hired because she uses a head scarf.

Despite all these controversial allegations, Abercrombie & Fitch seemed to hang on to what Mike
Jeffries promised that he would do – to make the brand “sizzle with sex”. But figures today tell a
different story.

This year, Abercrombie & Fitch reported a 33% drop in profit and a 14% drop in sales in the previous
quarter. The clothing retailer has announced that from July onwards, there will be no more “sexualized
marketing” (say goodbye to topless male models with washboard abs and female models with low-rise
shorts and barely there miniskirts), body type or physical attractiveness will no longer be a consideration
in hiring and the job title of associates will switch from “model” to brand representatives.

Even though, Abercrombie & Fitch took to selling a wider range of sizes and fits after the controversy in
2013, the company and its’ “cool kids’ only strategy” has been suffering with major drops in its stock
prices and sales as teens steadily ditched the brand. In December of 2014, Mike Jeffries also stepped
down as CEO, presumably for failing to stem the financial bleeding from his exclusionary brand strategy.

Time will tell if the now toned-down brand approach will be enough to turn the tide for Abercrombie &
Fitch but as it stands, they are no longer part of the “cool” crowd they so desperately tried to align
themselves with as a brand.

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