Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO told it how it was – so why the backlash?

When Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries said his brand was only for cool, young, thin and beautiful people in an interview in 2006 he could never have predicted the fall-out would land seven years later.

Robin Lewis, the co-author of The New Rules of Retail, recently wrote of Jeffries, “He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people.” The comments spread like wildfire on social media after Business Insider tweeted them, eventually resulting in a social media outrage campaign and a belated apology from Jeffries.

The interesting thing is the timing – how long it took for Jeffries’ words to spiral into a new social media industry case study.

So what did Jeffries say? Back in 2006, the A&F CEO told Salon magazine, “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, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

He said companies that don’t alienate anybody “don’t excite anybody, either” and become “totally vanilla”.

Jeffries has been at the helm of the company since 1992. He took the brand from an obscure, formally bankrupt clothing label to an international phenomenon with over $4.2 billion in annual revenues. The 2006 interview did not go well at the time with the journalist writing a less than glowing report. It must have caused the A&F PR people some angst at the time, but happened years before the era of social media.

Still, they chose not to react, and yes, they could have done more. They could have built a brand with more widespread tolerance, more empathy – referencing non-bullying and compassion for all people, while still clearly targeting people of a certain size and look.

In the past, companies and individuals have been vilified by social media feedback for mis-representation of the facts. In Jeffries’ case, he unashamedly stated the target of the company – and it was thin, good looking, popular people. No-one reacted particularly aggressively at the time.

It is interesting that a brand can state its target market – however politically-incorrect – outwardly limit its target markets from a revenue standpoint and be vilified. If the average American woman today is a size 12-16, Jeffries’ stated strategy is to cut out a wider income.

So what is actually behind the A&F vitriol? Could it be A&F’s dropping sales – 17 percent down according to The Wall Street Journal? Or is it a campaign to get rid of a CEO who has been in the job for 20 years? Or is it a competitor-initiated? Buying the clothing label and pushing Jeffries out would be costly due to his most recent employment contract. The agreement, expiring February 2014, could award him as much as $105.6m the company were to change hands and put him out of a job.

It comes as a warning for directors, mar-comms and business owners and all custodians of brand reputation to consider. How do we know how or when a story will break? We now live in a world where stories, quotes and interviews from the past can be dug up and re-launched as politically incorrect with new and increased gusto.

Jeffries recently said in the New York Observor, “We sincerely regret and apologise for any offense caused by the comments we have made in the past”.

Noting they were contrary to the values of diversity and inclusion and affirming a commitment to anti-bullying, Jeffries said the “seven-year-old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context”.

Brand champion? Targeted marketer? Politically-incorrect CEO? However offensive, Jeffries was at least open and honest in his dialogue. And from a marketing perspective, he was targeting a core small market. If you are thin, cool and good looking you are for us. If you are fat, or uncool you are not.

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