The moves are in response to changing millennial tastes and the #MeToo movement
Updated: March 6, 2018
Sex no longer sells.
Just last year, the au courant label Alexander Wang produced ads featuring It girl Bella Hadid sprawled with her legs wrapped around a branded bag. That was then. For its latest campaign, which debuts this week, the New York label is running ads featuring just clothes and accessories, sans scantily clad models.
The reason? The millennial women that Wang counts as its primary customer base are turning away from highly sexualized images in advertising. And “obviously, you can’t ignore what’s going on around us right now,” the eponymous designer told the Wall Street Journal of the anti-harassment climate that has taken over pop culture in the past half year.
Wang is following in the footsteps of the once-popular brand Abercrombie & Fitch. With its heavily perfumed boutiques and attractive, barely-clothed adolescent sales staff, Abercrombie ruled the aughts. But the Ohio-based apparel brand has struggled recently as millennial tastes evolved and e-commerce boomed. It posted a $15.5 million loss in its quarter to October 2017 and shuttered around 50 stores last year. According to Ypulse, a branding consultancy, Abercrombie was the least favorite clothing brand among 13 to 34 year olds it polled in early 2017.
In a bid to capture its former zeitgeist, A&F last fall released its first TV commercial in more than 10 years. The 60-second-long video, available as a 30-second cut on social channels, features fully-clothed 20-somethings frolicking in a wintry urban setting. The holiday season ad nods to A&F’s 125-year-old heritage as a sports adventurer’s brand, with a voice-over daring millennials to be brave, experiment and fail while they’re still young. (Among its former fans was the late Cold -War-era diplomat George Kennan, who wore the label as a young man.)
By highlighting #adulting struggles and its outdoorsy origins, A&F is trying to position itself as decidedly not a teen retailer. Shedding its sex-tinged image is also crucial in a post-Harvey Weinstein era when young people are especially looking askance at the sexualization of women in the media. Indeed, A&F even recently said that it would be entering the highly conservative Saudi Arabian market.
“We understand how, when and where [customers] want to engage and what they expect from us as a brand,” Will Smith, A&F’s chief marketing officer, told Women’s Wear Daily, adding that the commercial nods to the “important journey our customers are on, as well as the one we are on as a brand.”
But whereas Abercrombie’s highly sexualized id set the tone for a different era, its new campaign may have erred too much on the side of ordinary. “They have included all the signifiers of modern youth culture: multicultural cast, startup entrepreneurs hunched over their computers, interracial and same sex relationships, trendy restaurants and beautiful twenty-somethings dancing with their hands in the air,” says marketing expert Chuck Welch. “But it is surface and lacks a soul.”
Abercrombie & Fitch is ditching sex for ruggedness— but will millennials fall in love with it again? https://t.co/CyDFQjSEr7
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 20, 2017
“It feels like they are holding up a mirror to an idealized version of who they think a millennial is today, but what are they adding?” adds the founder and chief strategy officer of Rupture Studio. “The spot feels like it could be from a hodgepodge of mall brands, from American Eagle, Forever 21, H&M, Levi’s or a host of others.”
That’s not to say focusing on its roots is a bad strategy. British brand Burberry and more recently, menswear retailer Kent & Curwen have found new resonance among younger customers by playing up their century-old heritage. According to the U.S. Outdoor Foundation, millennials have become the fastest growing group of people participating in outdoor activities.
Abercrombie has “that authentic DNA, but they’ll have to make it modern and tell that backstory,” says Welch. “They’ve provided no context to current or prospective customers about their origins , so they need to do that in order to reach back and move forward.”
This story was updated on March 6 2018 with news of Alexander Wang’s new campaign.
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