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Spotlight on: Abercrombie & Fitch

What is Abercrombie & Fitch? That’s a question the famous (infamous?) retailer itself has been trying to answer with its recent rebrand under the tagline ‘This Is Abercrombie & Fitch’. After decades of courting controversy and well over 100 years of selling high quality clothing, why has the decision been made to go in a different direction? As usual, the answer lies in plummeting sales and a brand image that had lost its appeal to its core audience.

How Abercrombie & Fitch Got Started

A long way away from the controversies that have plagued Abercrombie & Fitch more recently, the company was started in 1892 in Manhattan by David T Abercrombie, with Ezra Fitch joining in 1900, and it sold sporting goods like shotguns and fishing boats. The pairing only lasted for seven years before Abercrombie left in a dispute over the direction of the company, and after his departure it began to try to appeal to a wider audience, starting to sell women’s clothing in 1910.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh wore Abercrombie & Fitch when he flew across the Atlantic, which helped further raise the brand’s profile and establish it as an outfitter for American high flyers and that image continued over the next few decades, including when the flagship Manhattan store was the setting for 1964 Rock Hudson comedy Man’s Favorite Sport? However, the 1970s saw a rapid decline as mixed marketing messages led to falling sales, and the firm went under in November 1977.

The name Abercrombie & Fitch was revived two years later but still struggled until the late 1980s when a buyout led to another new direction as a fashion retailer focusing on ‘preppy’ clothing aimed at the teen market. In 1992 Michael Jeffries became president and began to shape the company in his image, bringing in a more controversy-baiting and sexualised style of advertising.

The ‘Sex & Elitism’ Years

In 1997 Jeffries launched A&F Quarterly, a magazine/catalogue that featured very sexualised imagery and controversial content that earned lawsuits, boycotts but also helped to establish Abercrombie & Fitch as one of the top clothing brands for American teenagers. There were public outcries over naked photoshoots of teenagers in the magazine, as well as interviews with porn stars, and the furore reached fever pitch in December 2003, leading to the decision to end publication.

However, that was far from the end of Abercrombie & Fitch’s edgy approach to marketing, with sexualised imagery remaining, while topless hunks were employed to welcome customers into the stores, which were all staffed by exactly the kind of people the brand wanted to wear its clothes. In the words of one disgruntled whistleblower, he was recruited for looking ‘collegiate and quality’, and that was the image Jeffries insisted on throughout the company. For many years, it was a successful approach and being elitist made Abercrombie & Fitch an aspirational brand despite the controversies that plagued it.

However, when the youth market shifted away from it and towards cheaper stores and online shopping, Jeffries refused to change with it, saying that prices shouldn’t be dropped and not even allowing larger sizes to be stocked than size 10 for women. When these changes were finally introduced and the very stylised A&F and Hollister brand stores were altered to be more user-friendly, it was too little too late and Jeffries’ reign ended in late 2014 with the company’s fortunes in steep decline.

Rebranding Strategy

After so many years where Abercrombie & Fitch adverts resembled a Trump family holiday photo album, there has been a dramatic shift for its Christmas 2016 marketing campaign. The Instagram account was completely cleared of previous imagery and a softer, more inclusive image has taken hold instead, albeit still with some remnants of the more sexualised imagery creeping in occasionally. Even that is more gentle than before, while the elitist image has been shed almost entirely.

Fran Horowitz, the company’s CMO explained: “Rather than buying clothes that symbolise membership in an exclusive group, today’s consumer celebrates individuality and uniqueness.” By expanding its target audience, Abercrombie & Fitch is trying to sell more clothes, it’s not a complicated thought process, but nor is it as straightforward as assuming that it will work. Checking the comments for any of the new imagery on social media posts reveals that many customers aren’t happy with the changes and miss ‘the old Abercrombie’.

That’s a risk in any major rebranding project and this kind of total reboot of social media accounts is rare if not entirely unheard of (Yves Saint Laurent did it earlier this year, amidst great uproar), but Abercrombie & Fitch’s history has been one of new starts and reinventions, with the preppy image we all associate with the brand only existing for around 30 years of its 124 year history. Any complaints will be washed away if the rebrand turns the company’s fortunes around.

What are your thoughts on Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding? Is it enough to change your opinions of the brand? Get in touch with us via social media and share your opinions.

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