Social Justice: Is Abercrombie & Fitch Paying the Price?

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Back in May we ran a post covering 10 companies that had experienced a Social Media PR firestorm.  We outlined the impact that Social Media had on both sales and business practices.

Very often, with hindsight, many of the ‘social media disasters’ ended up being nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, wreaking havoc on a business’ PR team but having no real, lasting effect upon profits.

There are, however, companies and organizations that are greatly impacted by PR scandals, and Social Media has meant that PR professionals have to respond more quickly; their own reactions can also create mega-storms out of smaller problems.

It is clear now that Social Media is a powerful megaphone for detractors of a company’s business practices, and a misstep is often amplified via social channels.

As this Social Justice series has matured, it has also impacted how we at ArCompany view social media uproars both while they’re happening, and after they fade to be taken over by the next great online story.

Through this prism we have been keeping an eye on Abercrombie & Fitch after the outcry over statements made by their CEO, Michael S. Jeffries, that came to light last May. We want to know: how significantly, if at all, did the controversy impact the brands sales in the past quarter?

The Abercrombie & Fitch PR Backstory

Abercrombie and Fitch Taylor Swift  t shirt

Abercrombie and Fitch is no stranger to controversy.

Thanks largely to their outspoken CEO Michael S. Jeffries, the brand has generated considerable online backlash more than once.

Just this past June the brand was again in a self-induced PR kerfuffle over a T shirt poking fun at Taylor Swift  and having to apologize on Twitter:

Hey #swifties we no longer sell the tshirt. We <3 Taylor’s music and think she’s awesome!

Back in 2011, the company was on the defence for firing an employee who wore a headscarf for religious reasons.

That same year A & F found itself on the Business News Top 10 PR Disaster List after it asked The Jersey Shore’s ‘Situation’ to stop wearing their clothes.

Of  course, the most famous of the A & F PR problems came to light back in May when  the following comments by CEO Jefferies blew up on social media networks:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, 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 [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

What is somewhat curious is that these statements came from a Salon story on Jefferies from January, 2006

The interview Titled The Man Behind Abercrombie & Fitch carried the subtitle: 

Mike Jeffries turned a moribund company into a multibillion-dollar brand by selling youth, sex and casual superiority. Not bad for a 61-year-old in flip-flops.

The article was actually a nauseatingly flattering piece with statements by the author that were almost as gag-worthy as Jefferies’ comments.  He described the A & F ‘campus’ thusly:

“If looks could kill, everyone here would be dead. Jeffries’ employees are young, painfully attractive, and exceedingly eager, and they travel around the campus on playground scooters, stopping occasionally to chill out by the bonfire that burns most days in a pit at the center of campus. “

Benoit Denizet-Lewis, spoke of A & F’s future

Next, Jeffries plans to open his first store overseas, in London, and continue the transformation of A&F from American frat-bro wear to luxury lifestyle brand. I wouldn’t bet against him. If history is any indication, Jeffries won’t let anyone — “girlcotting” high school feminists, humorless Asians, angry shareholders, thong-hating parents, lawsuit-happy minorities, nosy journalists, copycat competitors or uptight moralists — get in his way.

The entire A & F story smacks of exclusion and hints at the bullying implication – you’re not good enough to wear our clothes.  The fact that Jeffries’s comments were found offensive is not shocking; it is mystifying that it took 7 years for the backlash to begin.

And that backlash began with ABC doing a story where they went inside an A & F store in New York and revealed that the chain did not sell jeans larger than size 10 and did not carry Plus Size Clothes.

The Social Media Backlash Against Abercrombie & Fitch

If you’re a regular social media user, it was hard not to miss all of the chatter against Jeffries and A & F.  There is still a petition that garnered almost 80,000 signatures.   It included real life protests, celebrities like Kirsty Alley calling the chain out publicly, and a loud social media backlash.

Benjamin O’Keefe, the actor behind the petition that grew to nearly 80,000, became the voice of the campaign:

And of course there was the brilliant PR move by Greg Garberwho started the Fitch the Homeless campaign after being incensed both by Jefferies’ comments AND the fact that A&F burned their surplus clothing rather than allowing it to be worn by anyone it deemed undesirable (my adjective).

The rest of the social media backlash followed the well worn play book:  The company’s Facebook Page blew up with angry commenters.  When the story first broke , Twitter was a buzz with outraged tweets.

For a good few weeks, Abercrombie and Fitch was THE negative social media disaster story.

Abercrombie & Fitch Apologizes

At some point the decision makers at A & F must have thought the bad publicity was so bad they needed to take action. On May 15th the following post appeared on the company’s Facebook Page and a link to it was tweeted on A&F’s Twitter account:

A note from Mike, our CEO:

I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.

That apology was not well received.

The company also issued a public statement that said, in part:

“We sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by the comments we have made in the past which are contrary to (the values of diversity and inclusion).”

And of course speculation was rampant that these apologies were the result of declining sales, although the decline appeared to have began before the backlash.

Where is Abercrombie & Fitch’s Social Media Position Today?

The A& F Facebook page is over 7 million strong, but they have set it so that posts by others are not allowed. Someday brands will learn that if people are fired up, they’ll comment anyway under the brand’s post just as fiercely.

The anti- A& F comments on the page have slowed to a steady trickle, down from a barrage in May and June.  Currently, there are lots of questions about products – but if you scroll through you will find a continued drum beat of replies to company posts like this one:

It would be nice if such modeling wouldn’t encourage eating disorders in today’s culture. When you get a female model with a BMI over 18, maybe I’ll be impressed. I’m done buying clothes at A&F until the “war on fat people” is stopped. I’m not saying being fat is great, but it would be nice if being super skinny wasn’t encouraged. Eating disorders can kill, so why would a company want to “encourage” that sort of mentality and behavior.

A & F’s Twitter following is far lower, with only 400K, and it has fewer interactions with followers overall.  The negative tweets aimed at the brand appear to have practically ceased.

The Abercrombie & Fitch Sales Decline is Real

The first quarter earnings report by A & F show retail and online sales have declined 18 % at the Hollister chain and 13% at the A & F brand. The company cut its profit forecast and its share price decreased by 10%.

Abercrombie and Fitch sales drop

I am not a business analyst, and as we stated earlier in the post, the brand had been witnessing a decrease in sales BEFORE the Jeffries statements became public. Sometimes hindsight is the only viewpoint that will give a company clarity on what caused its decline; often it is a combination of poor choices.

Perhaps A & F is struggling because it has not kept up with the fickle fashion sense of its teen target market.  Perhaps the competition has done a better job.

It is impossible to point to one specific incident or issue that is causing the current decline in sales, and the brand-predicted decline over the next 12 months.  Some social media pundits would love to declare the brands’ lagging sales a victory for social media outrage, but that would be naive.

What is clear is this: a brand’s reputation matters, particularly when they are selling fashion and image.  One PR debacle, or even a few, may be absorbed and even serve as learning lessons for smart social companies.  Repeated dings of the sort that A & F have gone through have to have an impact.

It may be okay to piss off a segment of the market once in a while – heck, Benetton used it as a tremendous marketing strategy in the 80’s.  However, if you infuriate too many segments of the market, eventually they will come together and create a fierce opponent to your brand.

Their constant drumbeat against you has to have an impact of some measure.  How great the impact of social media is not necessarily measurable in this particular instance, but it certainly played an important role in spreading the anti A & F story and keeping it alive.

The Abercrombie & Fitch brand is far from over, but it will be interesting to keep tabs on as the brand tries to right the ship.

We, along with the rest of the on and offline media world, will be watching.

12 thoughts on “Social Justice: Is Abercrombie & Fitch Paying the Price?

  1. HeidiMassey says:

    Interesting that H&M is a comparison company on the chart. They experienced their own maelstrom surrounding child labor and unfair labor practices in foreign countries. Guess that proves the point that companies can survive a social media crisis. But the repeated dings ultimately will have an impact. 
    As an aside, not sorry to see them struggle. My kids NEVER bought anything at their A&F stores, because they didn’t want to look like everyone else. And their stuff was pricey, so they’d rather get more stuff that was less expensive. I hated walking into those stores. Dark. Music blaring. NOT a parent-friendly experience.

  2. Kind of ironic. Came here from ted Rubin sharing this. I was a bit catty when he went to the Walmart annual meeting as a VIP talk about a socially unresponsible company. I like Ted. He likes Walmart. But his brand to me was damaged. He says good for business. Maybe. But then maybe not.
    A&F obviously felt this was good for business. Nice to see it was not.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      Howie Goldfarb Hi Howie –  I appreciate Ted, but let me ask this question: does he do any contract work for Walmart?  In my opinion, Walmart makes a profit because WE want bare bones cheap stuff, and we don’t care where it comes from. They are horrible to their vendors, and not much better to their employees. We’ve only tracked one of their social media backlashes here, but there have been plenty.  I think most people have surrendered to their “cheap at all cost” philosophy and don’t even bat an eyelid when they do something outrageous.
      I can’t say that I thought A & F thought any of this was ‘good for business;’ rather, it seems that they have a controversial CEO who spouts off whatever is top of mind.  What social media MAY be showing in this case is that there are repercussions for being exclusionary bullies.  We shall see.

    • Danny Brown says:

      Howie Goldfarb I question anyone that supports a company that puts dollars over the lives of people.

      • AmyMccTobin says:

        Danny Brown Howie Goldfarb You must question a lot of them.

        • Danny Brown says:

          AmyMccTobin Howie Goldfarb Or just not shop there.

        • Danny Brown AmyMccTobin I wanted to come back to this.
          I don’t think A+F’s fall had anything to do with PR blunders as much as style blunders. Their core customer is 13-25 who would never know any of this happened. I just think as with Pop music when the cohort grows up the next gen wants something different. It is really hard to stay relevant in this age group. One of the few is Vans. They did it through a yearly punk festival.

          But even my old school surf skate brands Billabong and Volcom are now technically brands for old people.It is really hard to be mainstream and cool. This hurt Hilfinger, Calvin Klein (though they came back) even kenneth cole now makes fashions I snub and I used to wear a lot of KC.
          As for Ted I get your point Amy. I just wouldn’t accept anything from them myself. And I did say it is our fault for patronizing these brands. That said being righteous doesn’t always help one’s income 😉

        • AmyMccTobin says:

          Howie Goldfarb Danny Brown AmyMccTobin Yes, it’s hard to ‘stay cool,’ but if you look at the groups they angered, there are a lot of greater than size 10 teens out there in America spending money.

  3. Karl Sakas says:

    “if you infuriate too many segments of the market, eventually they will come together and create a fierce opponent to your brand.”
    This is how Lyndon Baines Johnson won the 1964 presidential election against Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. By positioning himself as slightly less conservative than Goldwater, LBJ attracted those in the center in addition to his base on the left. He got 61% of the popular vote, an unbroken record.
    I’m surprised it took seven years for the quote to come back to bite Jeffries, but goes to show once something’s online, it’s out there forever.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      Karl Sakas That is a great point I missed in the piece Karl – “I’m surprised it took seven years for the quote to come back to bite Jeffries, but goes to show once something’s online, it’s out there forever.”

  4. ajenkins says:

    Abercrombie has always been edgy with their approach. They’ve used nudity in their magazines as photographed by Bruce Weber. They approach attractive people in their stores or in the mall and ask them if they would be interested in working for A & F with the discussion of their qualifications coming later. Basically, they cast people rather than hire them. It happened to a friend’s daughter and she respectfully declined. 
    Also, I met a woman at a corporate event who bartended on the weekends at corporate events and worked for A & F during the week opening new stores. She was living proof of the image they perpetuate. 
    To be fully transparent, I have bought clothes from them and so has my family, however, I don’t fit their clothes or their image anymore.

  5. hessiej says:

    I saw this in the Forbes article, “The more talk there is of, the more clothes A&F will sell. Those customers who can find their sizes at A&F (and don’t get thrown out of the store for being insufficiently hot), now become part of the “in” group.” I guess the journalist was proven wrong in this case. 
    My kids, who once thought this was the brand to wear, don’t even want to go in the store — even in the cheap section. It has left a bad taste in their mouths. Unfortunately, for A&F, peer pressure is everything especially among teens — their target market that will slowly melt away from their brand.

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