A few years ago, my daughter’s elementary school started the “Bully Free” campaign. All students received a purple shirt with the school mascot and the phrase “Bully Free Starts With Me!” worn by students and staff alike, every Friday to show support for the school as well as the campaign. Assembly’s or class assignments focused on what bullying is, the effects of bullying and how to prevent or stop bullying. The district even revised its harassment and hate crimes policy to include bullying, with a first offense punishment of a three to five day suspension from school and depending on offense, possible expulsion or police involvement.
I’m sure many of us were picked on or bullied growing up; teased for our clothes, height, hair, athletic ability or body shape. And I’m sure many of us heard the same things from our parents, like “ignore them…turn the other cheek” or “sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you.” After the increase in school shootings and teen suicides due to bullying, society is making a greater effort to stop such behavior and promote positive actions.
So how does one explain the behavior and corporate image of Abercrombie & Fitch? Niche marketing strategy or consumer bullying?
Most retail stores will have a specific target or clientele they are marketing to. Oakley has found its niche, marketing to the “active lifestyle” perfect for anyone, any age, who enjoys athletic activities. Forever 21 and Old Navy are considered affordable fashion, marketing current styles and trends for the whole family. Hot Topic, known for being more edgy and catering to those who prefer an alternative lifestyle full of loud rock/metal music, cosplay and Si-Fi fun entertainment, still has something for everyone…even if it’s only for Halloween. Abercrombie & Fitch however, has a different target in mind, as stated by former CEO Mike Jeffries:
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.” ~Jeffries (Salon 2006)
The hiring policy of A&F has also been under scrutiny several times for allegations of age, religious or body stature bias. Jefferies was quoted by Business Insider saying “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
Many companies may have policies regarding visible tattoos, piercings and natural hair color or style (things all employees are required to adhering to), the policies for A&F are quite different. The four cabin attendants working on the corporate jet for instance (all male models or actors), must follow a 47-page manual that outlines the exact expectations while on duty, like “spraying A&F #41 cologne on their uniforms at regular intervals through the shift” or “only being allowed to say ‘no problem’ when responding to any request…specifying that “sure” or “just a minute” were not acceptable or permitted. It took a class action lawsuit to force diversification within the company and a change to many of its policies and procedures.
In November 2013, A&F reported seven straight quarters of losses and declines in store sales. When Mike Jeffries resigned as Chairman of the Board and CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch last December, the company’s share price rose 6%…I guess he’s no longer “cool” enough to be part of the A&F brand.