Abercrombie & Lessons in Exclusionary Marketing

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.

Taken out of context, that’s a lesson in marketing.
It’s undeniably true — especially in our era of boundless choices.

But then you put it in context. And learn it’s a quote from loathsome Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries. You know, he of the thoroughly insane private jet rules (which can be read in their entirety here). And you begin to understand why plenty of people are angry.

But the brand itself isn’t the problem. If A&F isn’t your (or more pointedly, your children’s) cup of tea, if you’re not part of that niche, you needn’t shop there. Just as Jeffries’ company targets “the cool kid,” stores like Lane Bryant target plus size women, Hot Topic (despite their hilarious transformation) targets your resident goths and punks. It’s how brands work. There will always be groups of people — that’s the nature of our society.  Join the school uniform debate. I went to Catholic school for 14 years, I’m well-versed.

It’s the CEO that’s the problem. He’s — well, he’s a jackass. We all know this.

But he runs, unfortunately, a pretty damn successful company.

Bully, yes. Completely.

It’s sort of a chicken and the egg argument. Does grouping allow for brands like Abercrombie? Or do brands like Abercrombie facilitate grouping? Regardless, it’s a battle that needs to be fought from the ground up. At schools, within families. And it’s not the topic of this post.

But this?

You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.

It’s why a majority of advertising is just awful. Not only awful, ineffective. You can’t please everyone; it’s bad for business. Vanilla is right.

The idea, instead, is pretty common sense:
There’s always* a way to go about targeting your primary segment without alienating secondary consumers. 

My Brandcenter application asked me to select an ad that didn’t appeal to me, explain what the strategy was and why it didn’t work. Here’s what I said:

On premise alone, exclusionary advertising is generally not the best idea. There is a way to go about targeting a primary segment without alienating a secondary segment of potential consumers.

Perhaps the best recent example, though not the topic of this essay, is the Dr. Pepper 10 “It’s Not For Women” campaign. I understand the motivation behind marketing a diet drink toward men. While I know many a man who drinks diet, it’s certainly a more ‘feminine’ trend, and one that few men want to be expressly associated with. That being said, was it necessary for Dr. Pepper to alienate women in borderline sexist fashion in order to appeal to men? I don’t think so. Especially when considering that most often (some estimates are as high as 90%) the primary shopper is a woman.

With that obvious bit of exclusionary advertising as a backdrop, I want to talk about Apple’s much-maligned Olympic ‘genius’ campaign.

Apple is known for amazing advertising: 1984, “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC,” the launch ads for the iPod and iPhone.  So this campaign, which depicts an Apple “genius” helping clueless mac users with relatively simple tasks, was a head-scratcher.

The strategy, likely, was to highlight Apple’s superior service, a key differentiator for the company, through humorous spots. It fails because the message and mechanics of the ad itself are not on-brand. Known for clever spots (I wrote most recently about the Heart & Soul iPad Mini ad here) that portray ordinary people doing extraordinary things by way of Apple products, this sitcom like series of ads made Apple users look clueless.

Now, getting to why this could be considered exclusionary. One might argue that the ads are aimed at first-time Mac users, but Apple is driven by the enthusiasm of its core ‘fanboy’ customers. Without specifically targeting those enthusiastic consumers, they can (and have in the past) appeal to new users without appearing ridiculous to their core base.

Therein lies the problem. The creation of sitcom-like characters that, rather than tell an engaging story like “Mac” and “PC” did, diminish the Apple user while creating a caricature of employees á la Progressive’s “Flo,” does nothing to add to the brand. Rather, it uses cheap humor (albeit effective in the case of “Mayday’s premise) to the effect of embarrassing current Mac users who voiced extensive criticism in the blogosphere.

In short, this strategy failed because it did not fit with the very carefully planned brand image the company (and its late CEO) is known for. And fans recognized the misstep. To Apple’s credit, they admitted their flaw, quickly pulling the ads after their Olympic stint ended.

*I’m sure there are exceptions. But let’s say most always.

My point is that there’s a way to be exclusive without being exclusionary.

— And yes, it would probably be wise for A&F to rethink their PR strategy and rein in their ever-so-controversial CEO.


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