Is Abercrombie & Fitch’s exposé a crisis or an opportunity?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/jetcityimage
Apr 25, 2022

Since last week’s release, “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” has consistently ranked as the top movie on Netlix’s platform. The chain’s current management continues to hammer home the message that “we’ve evolved.”

A New York Times review said the documentary “dresses up old headlines” about A&F’s past approach under former CEO Mike Jeffries that drove its popularity in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s and ultimately led to lawsuits, including those related to exclusionary marketing and discriminatory hiring.

GQ said what the documentary “makes clear is that Abercrombie’s uniquely toxic blend of exclusivity and prescriptive fashion could not exist in today’s world or style landscape—but also that those qualities were central to making it an enormous brand in the first place.”

A&F has ditched the shirtless jocks and reimagined itself with a more minimalist and inclusive approach to product and marketing under the leadership of CEO Fran Horowitz.

The chain’s first response arrived March 31 following the release of the film’s trailer. A&F said, “While the problematic elements of that era have already been subject to wide and valid criticism over the years, we want to be clear that they are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now.”

On April 19 with the film’s release, Ms. Horowitz wrote on A&F’s social channels, “Our ongoing evolution has been so rewarding, and we want to be clear that the recently released documentary is not reflective of who we are now. We own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership.”

A&F’s website now leads with the motto, “This is Abercrombie Today. Today —and every day—we’re leading with purpose, championing inclusivity and creating a sense of belonging.” A link leads to articles and programs detailing the many ways the chain’s embracing diversity and inclusion.

Ms. Horowitz’s Facebook post drew a mixed reaction with some applauding the rebrand, some vowing never to buy A&F after seeing the documentary and many urging A&F to return to a stronger point of view. One stated, “You can be inclusive without totally losing the brand identity.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the popularity of the “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” documentary be a net negative for the retailer? Can the publicity be beneficial and help highlight the chain’s reinvention? 

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"A&F is doing the right thing today, and this documentary falls under the category of there is no such thing as bad publicity -- especially when it's free."
"It’s an oxymoron to say “mass” and “exclusive” in the same sentence and they found that out the hard way."
"America loves a second chance, look at Victoria’s Secret, another L Brand. There’s a documentary in there, too."

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21 Comments on "Is Abercrombie & Fitch’s exposé a crisis or an opportunity?"


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DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

Any publicity can be good publicity, provided it’s followed by positive change. Smart leadership would see this documentary as an opportunity to show the public how much they have changed and what their new vision will be.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Oscar Wilde: “There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

I haven’t watched the documentary, but I do know that Abercrombie & Fitch has evolved past the mistakes and excesses of the Jeffries era. (If the filmmakers don’t make this clear, shame on them.) A&F has not only corrected these practices, but they have also pointed their merchandise mix toward a 30-something customer who is responding. I hope the company can continue to move forward past the inevitable bad publicity that the Netflix doc will produce.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
7 months 9 days ago

I watched the documentary over the weekend, and yes they did cover mistakes of the past (A LOT OF THEM). The documentary covered a little about the change in direction but not enough to let the average viewer know it is a very different company now than it started out to be.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

It’s #1 on Netflix because of the sensational hype and misogyny associated with branding that is well into the past. Having competed directly with A&F and Hollister while at AEO we recognized full well who their customer was and the image it portrayed. Today’s generation selects where to shop based on trend, look, feel and not so much what the logo on their polo says about them. A&F is doing the right thing today, and this documentary falls under the category of there is no such thing as bad publicity — especially when its free.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

If and how the company survives is wholly dependent on its response to the Netflix film. But saying “we’ve evolved” and “this is not reflective” aren’t enough – a dramatic change demonstrating an inclusive stance is required. That means revolution, not evolution.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

My kids were tweens during Abercrombie’s heyday and I remember shaking my head a lot and steering them towards other stores. What began as cool soon escalated into alarming. Abercrombie’s CEO didn’t know when to stop and the people surrounding him didn’t either.

Will the documentary hurt the new A&F momentum? Maybe, but it also illustrates how far the retailer has come. America loves a second chance, look at Victoria’s Secret, another L Brand. There’s a documentary in there, too.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Better to be discussed than forgotten as they say. Abercrombie seems to be handling this potential crisis well by owning the criticism and not trying to sweep stuff under the rug. That said there are other issues at Abercrombie that need to be addressed to bring them back to relevancy.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

It could be argued that the “there’s no such thing as bad press” maxim applies here. The saga of Mike Jeffries was interesting to watch over the years and it serves as a cautionary tale for retailers that have relied too heavily on cult-of-personality CEOs. The documentary will likely do more good than harm by reinvigorating awareness of the Abercrombie brand.

Rob Gallo
BrainTrust

What an opportunity for Abercrombie & Fitch! Many people are familiar with what the brand was and the environment created and perpetuated by former leadership. Best to accept it, as they have done, but also to welcome folks to learn about the evolution of the brand, its new leadership and its strategic path going forward. The equity of the past (however misplaced) has turned into a huge liability that A&F needs to overcome sooner than later. Ironically, the “new” version of the brand now suffers from a lack of awareness. This is just the opportunity to show what the brand has become.

Brian Delp
BrainTrust
7 months 9 days ago

There is no such thing as bad publicity. Although there are still customers that want and exclusive and exploitative brand, there has been a cultural shift towards inclusivity as the majority voice. Brands have to decide which side of the argument they want to be on, and hope the customer sentiment (and money) follows. A&F is not the only brand going through the struggle to change. Look at Victoria’s Secret, Dolce & Gabbana, and many more.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Netflix may have succeeded at putting a giant exclamation point behind the current teams efforts to evolve and rebrand. I worked at A&F in the early days of Mike Jeffries and it was amazing. Absolutely we wanted the brand to be cool, and that was long before it morphed into the very uncomfortable level of exclusivity it aspired to. The hubris of success did not serve them well. So hats off to the current team and their efforts on several levels. They are evolving the attitude/aesthetic of the brand and marketing it all into the new world of social media. Social media can be the brand’s best friend at this point. Digital word of mouth can help spread the word about the brand’s new persona more effectively than would have been possible a decade ago.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

With this documentary, publicity will not subside quickly. What is that famous quote? “I don’t care what you say, just keep talking about me!” It creates a lot of interest.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

I agree that any publicity is good publicity. However Abercrombie & Fitch also has a prime opportunity to change the narrative built on its evolution as a brand to one that is inclusive and all-accepting. Today’s conscious consumerism movement requires all companies to change their go-to-market strategies, how they target the diverse demographics, and to avoid alienating segments of the population.

Rick Wilson
Guest

The culture which the documentary reveals could never be considered “good publicity.” For anyone over 40 who hasn’t checked in with the brand in a minute, the perceptions we formed of it are likely still what they were in malls in the ’90s – exactly what the documentary describes. A quick glance at their site and marketing today, though, reveals a completely different brand voice and identity. Can a brand really grow and change just as a person can? If mall culture is dead and the old Abercrombie is long gone, what kind of shopper are these clothes now for? To survive, A&F needs to skip the platitudes and keep refining who their 2022 customer is – and then demonstrate why the current internal culture of the brand is perfectly aligned with how that customer lives and shops.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

That documentary was poorly done IMO, and mostly just a re-hash of things we already knew – plus I wish they would’ve spent more time with Fran or even showed some new numbers as they’re a MUCH different brand now and doing pretty well.

The bigger story there, really, is the story of one man — as well as a macro study on how you can’t make “exclusivity” scale to literally 1,000 stores and billions of dollars. It’s an oxymoron to say “mass” and “exclusive” in the same sentence and they found that out the hard way. And to back that statement up, take a look at the new Gucci ads and tell me they’re not about one step away from old A&F ads, BUT — they’re not trying to dress 300 million people.

Billy May
Guest

So true, Lee. The documentary was a 90 minute Google search, a rehash of old news — and a one-sided viewpoint at that. It mainly focused on store-level hiring and management practices and legal implications for implementing them. While certainly valid, the film failed to mention the company’s perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) for 15 straight years. It gave lip service to gender and diversity gains at the home office, including an executive team (and board) that is predominantly female (a rarity). It failed to articulate the positive changes made over the past 10 years at the brand, customer and associate experience, and home office levels. ANF is still relevant, generating $3.5B in sales and $500m in annual profit. While the director chose to the title “Rise and Fall,” a more complete and accurate story would include the “Evolution” of the brands. That chapter is still being written and I believe important for the brand to communicate openly and candidly.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Right, Billy — could’ve been a 1/3 type of doc, riches to rags to relevant — there’s a lot of good (as you outlined) to say about A&F now and I love the “evolution” idea. I mean, how many brands were caught flat footed by ecom alone? Lots of fodder there for incompetence! The sound editing drove me nuts too, but that could be personal, hah!

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

“There is no such thing as bad publicity” – or so the saying goes. However what the saying does not mention is, “if handled correctly.”

In reality consumers will be looking at A&F to see what they do about this in response to it. Focusing on how they have changed, and are continuing to change, to drive inclusivity should be a key focus for A&F in the coming months. Observers should watch with interest to see if and how stores, advertising and approach changes going forward.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Stop a hundred people on the street and you might find one who has heard of this; stop a thousand and you might find one who cares. Translation: I see this as a net nothing.

Anil Patel
BrainTrust

In this case, the saying “no publicity is bad publicity” suits perfectly. Customers today are liberal, and they form opinions based on what a person or organisation is now, rather than what they were in the past. If Abercrombie & Fitch has truly evolved itself into a more inclusive and diverse brand, the documentary has been nothing but beneficial because it has highlighted their journey.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"A&F is doing the right thing today, and this documentary falls under the category of there is no such thing as bad publicity -- especially when it's free."
"It’s an oxymoron to say “mass” and “exclusive” in the same sentence and they found that out the hard way."
"America loves a second chance, look at Victoria’s Secret, another L Brand. There’s a documentary in there, too."

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