Mike Jeffries, the former CEO of Abercrombie taught us a lesson in bad marketing and how to ruin a brand’s reputation.
By Qiana Chavaia, IZEA
The fall of Mike Jeffries from his post as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is a high-profile lesson in branding gone wrong. Jeffries stepped down last year following a media frenzy that started over comments he gave in a 2006 interview with Salon Magazine.
It’s the story of a leader’s – and ultimately a company’s – inability to read consumer sentiments and adapt to their changing tastes.
Jeffries found himself in hot water after discussing the brand’s stance against big clothing sizes and making inflammatory remarks that alluded to the brand exclusively targeting the “svelte.”
“A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes],” he said. “And they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
His remarks hurt his personal brand, rendering him a replaceable chief executive, but beyond that, they also impacted Abercrombie’s business. In the wake of the scandal, A&F co., a $4 billion a year company, realized substantial losses as its shares, ANF, took a dive from an all year high of $44.83 to $26.35 in the final quarter (December 8, 2014). The nosedive prompted activist investors to seek “new blood,” and the resulting fallout also led to a close look at the brand’s alleged discriminatory hiring practices.
Jeffries’ story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a company’s culture goes wrong. Twenty-two years ago, when Jeffries was hired as CEO, it may have been acceptable to carry on with a corporate policy that loosely promoted discrimination, but times have changed. Over the last decade, a company’s brand, product, and culture have faced tougher scrutiny at the hands of today’s informed consumer. Now brands need to remain flexible to stay afloat in today’s sink-or-swim marketplace. Losing sight of the customer in the consumer’s marketplace is the worst-case scenario for any brand.
It’s important to recognize that the real failure in Jeffries’ strategy. He stood by the consistency of his brand, which is a good marketing move – unless, of course, the brand message is off-key (and, as we’ve pointed out, discriminatory).
According to one of the primary stakeholders, Jeffries built a brand that had a tremendous amount of longevity. There’s something there that consumers really like. The fundamental problem, the stakeholder claimed, lies within the brand’s leadership. “Mike hasn’t been able to evolve Abercrombie & Fitch or his team, and that’s not good for customers or shareholders.”
In the end, Jeffries’ failure to adapt and refusal to implement a strategy to reach down-market consumers left the company vulnerable to brands like Forever 21 and H&M. Both offer merchandise at a much lower price point and whose advertising campaigns clearly target the A&F’s primary demographic, teens.
In today’s marketplace, evolution and adaptation are key. While some of the world’s most well known, recognizable brands like Armani, Nike, and Mercedes-Benz have done this brilliantly, Abercrombie has been late to adapt. This oversight has led the century-old brand, which once catered to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, out to pasture and left its’ market-share up for grabs.
Jeffries and Abercrombie aren’t alone, though. Lululemon, Chick Fil A and even Donald Trump have all provided recent examples of how one serious blunder can do irreversible damage to a brand’s image. Formerly “established brands” are realizing that brand loyalty is a thing of the past. With one serious misstep, a brand can vanish as quickly as it appeared. It’s a lesson that all companies should take to heart.