Can Victoria’s Secret shift its brand image from sexy to empowering?

Source: Victoria’s Secret
Jun 21, 2021

Victoria’s Secret, long criticized for its out-of-date and oversexualized marketing, is retiring the Angels, its line-up of scantily-clad supermodels. In its place, the leading lingerie chain has retained a group of athletes, activists and actors as brand ambassadors to support a rebranding toward empowering women.

The initial seven members of the VS Collective ambassador team are:

  • Adut Akech, a model and South Sudanese refugee; 
  • Amanda de Cadenet, the photographer and founder of #Girlgaze, the digital platform for female photographers;
  • Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the Indian actor and tech investor;
  • Paloma Elsesser, a biracial model and inclusivity advocate;
  • Eileen Gu, the Chinese American freestyle skier and soon-to-be Olympian;
  • Megan Rapinoe, soccer star and gender equality advocate;
  • Valentina Sampaio, the first transgender model to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

Victoria’s Secret has struggled in recent years as consumers shifted their purchases to brands that offered a wider range of size options and more inclusive marketing messages.  Complaints over the brand’s hyper-sexualized, ultra-glamorous imagery and past refusal to use plus-size models have rung louder amid the #MeToo movement.

The brand’s ambassadors will appear in ads, promote Victoria’s Secret on Instagram, share their stories on podcasts, and advise on product and messaging.

“So often I felt myself on the outside looking in with brands in the beauty and fashion industry, and I’m thrilled to be creating a space that sees the true spectrum of ALL women,” said Ms. Rapinoe in a company press release.

The chain has already embraced plus-sized models and toned down the sexual imagery in ads. Other changes planned include adding more sportswear to join its range of thongs and lacy lingerie, as well as reducing promotions.

The shift in aesthetics and support of issues, such as LGBTQ rights, may alienate existing shoppers. Cynthia Fedus-Fields, the former head of the Victoria’s Secret catalog division, told The New York Times, “If it was a $7 billion business pre-Covid, and much of that $7 billion was built on this blatant sexy approach, be careful with what you’re doing.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s the likelihood that Victoria’s Secret will find success rebranding around women’s empowerment with the support of the VS Collective ambassador team? Do you see more benefits than risks in Victoria’s Secret’s strong shift away from glamour and sex appeal?

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"Shifting VS’s focus is a heavy lift, but the women chosen as the new brand’s ambassadors could help."

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25 Comments on "Can Victoria’s Secret shift its brand image from sexy to empowering?"

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Dick Seesel

Victoria’s Secret was guilty of objectifying its own target customers, and did not offer enough assortment outside of the “glamour and sex appeal” that made it famous. (Note: I merchandised this category, among others, while at Kohl’s.) Through its marketing and product development, VS created a big hole that its competitors drove through, whether they are pushing fit for all body types, comfort, athletic-inspired or some other attribute.

The new faces of Victoria’s Secret are a first step as far as marketing is concerned, but the proof is in the merchandise content and the store experience. Will the product, store design and (yes) hiring of associates still try to push the “glamour and sex appeal” button, or will VS present a more inclusive experience reflective of its new spokespeople?

Rodger Buyvoets

There’s no question that a complete shift from objectification to empowerment is 100 percent necessary for female-oriented brands. After all, real women are the ones digesting the content and buying the products, so it’s imperative to cater to the real woman. Which is how DTC brands like Glossier and Thinx made it so big (although the latter has its fair share of controversy). As long as this is holistic, transparent, and echoed across the company (from their employees to their marketing and beyond) — if they can create real change (within their staff structure) that shows female empowerment isn’t just a marketing stunt — then this will carve out their success. For too long we’ve been watching brands use social messages as a stepping stone — again, Thinx comes to mind — but if a brand with this much legacy power can leverage their ambassadors in a way that really resonates with the everyday consumer, I think they stand a chance.

Steve Montgomery

Part of the answer about the extent of the risk Victoria Secret’s is taking is how they are mitigating it. Does the change to focusing on empowering women mean that the will be completely revamping product line or just shifting the focus somewhat? The danger they face is that in trying to add new customers they don’t lose those that they have.

Cathy Hotka

Shifting VS’s focus is a heavy lift, but the women chosen as the new brand’s ambassadors could help. Let’s hope that the gloom-and-doom black and white images are a temporary aberration.

Georganne Bender

These are all accomplished women, but where is the “girl next door,” the fresh-faced young women I consistently see shopping in Victoria’s Secret stores at the mall? I wonder how hard VS looked at its own customers.

Cathy Hotka

Good point!

Liza Amlani

The VS Collective is a great start for change but they have a lot of work ahead of them.

From optimizing the Victoria Secret assortment to reflect its customers to pricing and supply chain transparency, the VS Collective needs to target all areas of the business with a focus on product offering to inclusive and diverse representation in their leadership and corporate office.

I can’t wait for the group to make a dent into the challenges that VS has faced. There is no risk to shift away from dated glamour and sex appeal – they just need to listen to what their customers really want and apply that across their merchandising and marketing strategy. Once they tackle that, they can finally focus on moving away from a dated and “always on sale” brand to being relevant again.

April Sabral

Liza — this is a great perspective. I wonder if they did take customer insights into their decision regarding this. I would assume so – would love to read that report.

Georganne Bender

Showing any model in lingerie is still promoting glamour and sex appeal, but that’s the nature of the product Victoria’s Secret sells.

Moving away from what men want to what women need is important to the company’s survival. So is choosing diverse women to be the new faces of the brand. Still, I would be happier to see Victoria’s Secret follow Aerie and choose real women with all varying body types as models. That feels more inclusive to me.

Bob Phibbs

This feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes it needs change but I’m concerned when the stores still look like a French boudoir that this may undercut their current loyal customer. Their marketing used to be color ads of fantasy, now they seem like a documentary. Beware the Ron Johnson temptation for radical change without buy-in from loyal customers.

Lee Peterson

VS’s main issue is perception, which is marketing, as well as it’s leaders’ actions (PR). This is a grand brand experiment along the lines of ’90s Target, who went from a Dayton Hudson discounter to the hip “Tarzhay,” and even A&F more recently — whose business is still recovering (but better) after years of challenging a very set-in perception mode. But in this case, other than missing the bra-let, VS’s product performance is still solid (witness the last couple of quarters), so there’s more room. I think they’re going to do it (fix the marketing, that is). Again, the fact that they still have a dominant market share helps inform that belief. What also helps is that the old “sexy from a man’s POV” is SO wrong in 2021, so there’s nowhere to go but up.

Jeff Weidauer

The changes being made at Victoria’s Secret are encouraging, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if the company wants to be taken seriously. It will take time and commitment – and a willingness to weather sales fluctuations.

Mel Kleiman

It sounds and feels like they are moving from one extreme to another. A hazardous strategy. Yes, they need to broaden their appeal and sell more than a sexy look, but it needs to be done strategically. Not by throwing rocks through a window.

Neil Saunders

The most significant thing about the creation of the VS Collective team is that it signals a step change in thinking at Victoria’s Secret. Under previous leadership, the company was in denial about their problems and was broadly unwilling to change. That attitude is now shifting and Victoria’s Secret is becoming more sensitive to cultural issues and the demands of younger consumers. That is a good thing. However an excellent group of powerful and successful women though it is, it will take more than an ambassador program to turn the brand around. Product innovation – perhaps a partnership with Megan Rapinoe on sports lingerie collections, for example – is vital. An ongoing shift in marketing and communication is also key. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction!

Venky Ramesh

Victoria’s Secret built its brand positioning around “sexy and glamorous.” But times have changed – with consumer attitudes and behavior changing in favor of comfort and healthy lifestyles. Female empowerment has been on the rise for a long time now, but the #MeToo movement accelerated it. However for VS, changing the brand positioning drastically is a risky deal. They need to redefine what is “sexy and glamorous” in the minds of today’s consumers, applying the same design skills that made them an aspirational brand in the past. I feel that they are taking a step in the right direction, but I hope they don’t deviate too much in terms of their core positioning.

Lisa Goller

This is the equivalent of a brand lobotomy. It’s a big, expensive risk to turn around the iconic yet tarnished Victoria’s Secret brand name to get with the times.

The brand will attract women by shifting the strategic focus to their needs. Building brand equity by aligning with strong female influencers and decision makers can boost loyalty over time.

Yet overhauling the brand is a costly, long-term effort. Women will wait to see if the brand’s dramatic transformation is genuine.

If Victoria’s Secret is sincere and consistent, it can win women’s trust and business.

Cathy Hotka

Dove did this. VS can too.

Liz Crawford

I don’t believe Victoria’s Secret can morph into an empowerment brand. You need only look at the name. It’s geared toward titillating female imagery, not to a modern empowered woman. Further, there are other newcomers who are better positioned for women’s shifting sensibilities, for example: Lively, Knix, and ThirdLove. I think the best VS can do is acquire one of these fresh faces.

Shep Hyken

Well — they need to do something. The old marketing isn’t working. As the customer demographics have changed, so must the marketing strategy. Understanding that is key to their success in the future. Their marketing and branding intentions seem to be in alignment with today’s consumers.

Joel Rubinson

You know, I really think this might have been based on an over-reliance on “right-think.” In social media, those ideas are very prominent, but I suspect not so much on main street USA. I prefer Dove’s approach … the real meaning of beauty. Their sketches campaign was absolutely brilliant.

Carlos Arambula

Female empowerment is no longer a brand position or differentiator, it’s the price of entry for any brand that wants an enduring relationship with its consumers.

At this stage, VS will be moving into a brand space that has been created and well curated by CPG (think Dove) and other fashion brands. It will not be as impactful as the move once was and it risks getting lost in the wave of “me too” activities instead of creating and owning a unique brand position.

Craig Sundstrom

Well nothing’s more “empowering” that hot pink underwear … right?

I don’t think this is really a case of “risks” or “benefits” as much as relevancy: the company’s whole purpose is to sell what is generally regarded as “sexy” apparel; some people like this, some don’t (indeed some find it offensive). The idea of hiring an athlete or “tech investor” as a spokesperson strikes me as just silly: what are they going to say that’s really relevant to the product?

Now if they want to venture out into sportswear, that’s another issue — but it would be entry into a crowded field where they have no particular advantage.

April Sabral

It is going to be very interesting to watch this brand reinvent itself, and much needed.

As a retail operations leader, the hardest shift, in my opinion, will be the store experience and spending the money on retrofitting the locations to look more inclusive. Rebranding is one thing externally from a marketing perspective. This is amazing. Will the store design and assortment follow suit?

Many brands think that marketing and changing up the imagery will surface, but in my experience, it is one of the many pieces to the puzzle.

I am happy to see this step forward and look forward to walking into a store and seeing how they mirror this in the staff and experience.

Chuck Palmer

As Victoria’s Secret tries to find its new relevancy and identity, I have to wonder what sort of work they are doing internally to shift core thinking and culture. If this is “just” window dressing, so to speak, it will have been a colossal waste of time, money and for the hired guns, brand capital.

The scale and reach of the VS Enterprise could be leveraged to provide all sorts of good to consumers and the brand itself, but if at its core they aren’t committed to a sustainable strategy, this will be just what it appears — a one-time campaign.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Changing the shapes and faces that VS may cause more people to give them a second look — the assortment and service they encounter will determine if they will become regular shoppers. In the meantime, VS needs to make sure they’re not alienating their core customers.

"Shifting VS’s focus is a heavy lift, but the women chosen as the new brand’s ambassadors could help."

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