Story time. I worked as a “visual merchandiser” at the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan for a few months while I was in college. My primary job duty was walking around the multistory shop and spraying Fierce from an industrial-size bottle all over the clothing and fixtures.
I was the reason your A&F purchase reeked of Fierce for weeks after you brought it home. I can’t confirm this, but I think that Fierce was piped through the HVAC system in lesser mall stores, to cut down on the cost of labor.
My other job duties included changing burnt-out lightbulbs in the backlit shelf displays and “pooling” the hems of jeans on the mannequins by spraying them with cornstarch mixed with water and then scrunching them into position.
This was circa 2007, the year before the great recession. There was enough demand for Abercrombie & Fitch in its original, decidedly not woke iteration that lines of shoppers formed outside the store each day, held back from the entrance by a blue velvet rope (really).
This was a truly immersive retail space, designed to feel like a nightclub without the sticky floors and long lines for the bathroom. The music was loud and there was a lot of contrast between shadow and light. It was disorienting, reminding me of the experience of losing consciousness—dark and light spaces increasing in contrast until they blind you and blend together into nothing.
The low rent version of Proust’s madeleine that triggered this memory was an excellent oral history of the A&F Quarterly. All 90’s kids know that the Quarterly followed the Playboy model —you bought it “for the articles”. Learning about the birth of the Quarterly drew a sharp line between marketing strategy before and after the shared foot traffic era:
We weren’t really expected to turn a profit, though. That was never the point. Come to think of it, I don’t even think we tracked how much the magazine impacted clothing sales...But that didn’t matter: Our mission was just to set the brand image and make people aware of us. That was our version of success.
- Savas Abadsidis, editor-in-chief, 1997-2003
What retail brand has taken such a big budget, non-quantifiable swing in the past five years? If the A&F Quarterly was born today instead of two decades ago, it would be a digital-first publication featuring #influencer content, not musings from Slavoj Žižek. The impact of page views on the cost of customer acquisition would be measured through holdout testing, and the project would be scrapped if a positive ROI was not achieved.
By now, you probably think I have some kind of pro-creative, anti-corporate finance agenda. Nothing is further from the truth—I think the A&F Quarterly was dumb. It was one of many potential abuses of fiduciary duty committed by CEO Mike Jeffries, as evidenced by its origin story. Go read the whole oral history, it’s great.
The publishers of the Quarterly were lucky that the project generated enough controversy to “go viral” late 90’s style without compromising the brand’s integrity. Whether you stumble into success or achieve it through deliberate effort, the results are the same. But the nature of the human mind will lead us to attribute all of our success to our own brilliance—often to disastrous results.
This strongly scented reverie forced me to pause and reconsider the connection between product and marketing. These two disciplines are often studied in isolation. Marketers shape brand, merchants develop product. And as a result, the frameworks we use to study one discipline often omit the influence of the other.
None of this used to matter. In the shared traffic era, the store was the platform for creating aspiration via immersive brand experiences.
All 90s kids remember the movie theater ambiance of the Disney store, culminating in a pyramid of stuffed toys sitting in front of a giant screen.
The “fancy” vibes of Bombay Trading Company packed with completely ornamental bric a brac you were terrified of accidentally knocking over, assuming the snooty salespeople would even let you in.
The exaltation of smelling anything and everything in Bath and Bodyworks, testing out different scented hand sanitizers until your cuticles burned.
And, of course, the dimly lit mystique of Abercrombie & Fitch, complete with the windowless facade and (if you were lucky) shirtless model boys.
In the shared traffic era merchants and marketers engaged in world building, because the mall was an average middle class person’s vehicle for expanding one’s worldview. Consumers bought out of aspiration. Brand didn’t provide the tools for self expression, it provided ready-made identities to lost souls looking for guidance in a postmodern society. Top-down branding.
Visiting different stores in the mall are among of a handful of childhood memories so tangible that I can recall them today in great detail. And that was by design. The mall was one of the few places an average American in the 90’s would encounter something close to a luxury experience, in the sense that someone had put in the work to consider how the experience would touch all five senses.
But the acceleration of internet adoption and the Great Recession killed the shared traffic era, and mall anchors’ obsession with #omnichannel fueled the decline. Using the physical store as a platform for world building had to be reserved for a few money-losing flagships. The overhead required for store build outs and upkeep become too high for a selling environment where foot traffic was not guaranteed to go up every year.
In this new environment, marketers must engage in driving traffic instead of world building. And consumers have the internet as a platform for exploring and defining who they want to become.
Now that the shared traffic era is dead, brand and product ignore each other at their peril. We need new frameworks to help the two worlds understand each other.
To better understand how product drives growth, and why some brands can get away with “big swings” and others cannot, let’s revisit the body/brand model from one of my favorite NYU professors, Scott Galloway.
The Body/Brand Model
Although he now focuses primarily on big tech, Professor Galloway spent the early 2000’s building a brand strategy firm called L2 (now part of Gartner). That firm standardized the analysis of a brand’s digital efforts and ranked brands by “digital IQ”. And through analyzing tons of brand data, Prof. Galloway developed a number of frameworks for understanding how brands became big and desirable—aka able to command a fat margin.
One of my favorite frameworks was the body/brand model. Essentially, a brand could appeal to one of three primary drivers of human motivation: the brain, the heart or the groin.
“Brain” brands had a rational appeal: they had to provide the most benefit for the least cost. Or they just had to provide the lowest cost. Brain brands were more commodities than brands. Think: private label groceries sold by stores known for their low prices, like Walmart and Aldi.
“Heart” brands had sentimental appeal: they work to evoke nostalgia or the parental obligation to do “what’s best” for one’s children. This is the realm of traditional CPG advertising and brand strategies, which attempt to signal that one product in a particular category is better by subtly inferring the others are sketchy or unpredictable. Think: choosy moms choose Jif.
“Groin” brands appeal to our monkey brain, which is attempting to find a good mate to propagate the human species. AKA they are status symbols. This is the realm of mass luxury brand strategies that work towards creating ingroups and outgroups. A&F fell into this category in the 90’s, and Apple falls into this category today.
Why we need to incorporate product into brand strategy
Top-down, dictatorial brand building is dead. In the mall era, the store was the platform for customer acquisition (foot traffic) and brand building (immersive world building). The store was a broad, public experience, which helped to build shared societal understanding of what a brand stood for. For those reasons, it was easier to create a top-down brand.
Now that the shared traffic era is dead, paid social advertising is the major platform for customer acquisition, and there is no singular platform for brand building. Brands with a large physical retail presence can’t invest as much in store build outs, and fewer people are going to stores. Our digital and physical communities are becoming more segregated into like minded groups, so there is less shared societal understanding of brand.
We need to incorporate product into brand strategy because the macro situation has most brands stuck in one part of the body, and they can’t get unstuck by adopting the same tactics as other brands they aspire to. In fact, taking this approach will result in disaster.
So I’ll build on the Body/Brand model to present…
The Body/Product/Brand Model
In this model, brands occupy distinct regions of the body based on the relationship between product and consumer.
What kind of products do “Brain” brands sell? Products that consumers don’t attach any emotional meaning to: commodities, or things that no one cares about.
Smart Brain Brands lean into this strategy. These are the WalMart’s and Costco’s of the world, and the relatively unknown brands that supply them. If these brands market at all, they talk about their low prices. But more often than not, they invest resources in reducing the costs of production and raw materials, and in securing the right distribution. That’s why no one has heard of them.
Dumb Brain Brands wind up in this category by mistake, by sliding into irrelevancy. These brands produce things that too few people, or no people, get emotional about. These are brands that you have heard about before, because they used to be Heart or even Groin brands. But by neglecting product and positioning for too long, they wind up in Brain territory, which translates into deep, consistent markdowns and eventual death.
These brands generate irrational enthusiasm by meeting an unmet or under-met need. Product-Market Fit brands are born from a single product that resonates strongly with people. Customers have affection for the product because they can’t find anything like it anywhere else.
This doesn’t mean it needs to be something completely innovative—Yeti Coolers started as a heart brand, and so did LL Bean. Both of these brands achieved heart status by pursuing quality as defined by a niche community (fishermen and hunters, respectively).
As Heart brands broaden their assortment, they become Product Reputation Brands. These brands are known as a reliable source for goods that appeal to a specific segment of customers. Think about what J Crew used to be at its peak—you knew that if it was 9 am and you forgot to pack a work shirt in your gym bag, they had you covered.
Consumers love these brands because they never let you down. Choosy moms choose Jif because they know that 1. It won’t contain rat poison and 2. Junior won’t turn up his nose at it.
These are straight-up status symbols. These brands are distinguished from Heart brands because they are about what the product telegraphs to others, not what the product means to the individual.
Groin brands come in two flavors:
In-Group Status brands convey that I am part of a tribe. If you know, you know. But if you don’t know, the symbol is meaningless. Maison Margiela pioneered niche brand symbolism by tacking in the brand’s labels with four thick stitches visible on the outside of the garment, but no visible labels or logos.
Streetwear-influenced brands that produce limited quantities of items with esoteric and ever-shifting symbology—Noah, Aime Leon Dore, Madhappy—all fall into this category.
Global Status brands convey meaning that is broadly, globally understood. Broad as in 4 in 5 people who cross your path will get the message. And that message is typically “I spent a lot of money on this”. Brands that reach this stage have the strategic foundation to start slapping their logo on anything and everything, and selling those things at inflated prices.
These are brands that convey a globally understood meaning that transcends status and communicates higher values.
These are Transcendent Brands. One of the best examples is Nike. Through decades of investment in marketing and product development, Nike has crafted the perception that their brand represents victory and the drive to be the best. This concept of victory has transcended athletic competition and come to represent being the first and the best in any and all walks of life.
Nike footwear and apparel is more expensive than what you’d find at WalMart, but it isn’t the most expensive gear on the market. Wearing their logo is about joining the winners’ circle, but not in purely financial sense. Nike is about the human imperative to win.
Brand Body Product Problems
The average DTC brand is stuck in the Product-Market Fit stage—it is a heart brand. If the DTC brand has been around long enough to successfully expand its assortment, it may reach the Product Reputation stage—still a heart brand.
A lot of these brands—especially if they’re heavily funded and unprofitable—need to achieve the scale and margin of a Global Status or Transcendent brand to make the numbers work. They need to become an Abercrombie & Fitch.
But the macro appetite for mass status symbols has dried up and the 10 year investment horizon of most VC funds negates the “secret ingredient” of building a Transcendent Brand: time.
So you see these brands attempt to take “big swings” out of the A&F Quarterly playbook, but the outcome is neutered by a lack of vision and world building. The MBA’s are too smart to go all in and too schooled in the BCG matrix model to create something like a mood board.
This is where you start to hear lots of woo. “We dedicate this to the power of We — greater than any one of us, but inside each of us.” These brands can articulate what they think consumers want to hear, but they can’t sell it, because it is completely cerebral and toothless.
On the other hand, the average wholesale-focused consumer brand (i.e. most of the American fashion industry) are Product-Market Fit brands that desperately want to become In Group Status brands. Unlike the venture-backed DTC crew, the motive here isn’t financial. The creative minds behind these brands desperately want the green light to take big swings, but they’re unable to get far enough outside the ego to build an aspirational world.
These are brands where the head creative is forced to micro-manage everything because he or she is incapable of creating guidelines around what the brand means and how that should be communicated. The root of this problem is that the brand stands for nothing other than “a collection of things I like”.
A lot of the retail carnage we’ve witnessed over the past five years has been a result of brands pursuing advice from the brand strategy playbook without considering if they have the product to back it up.
What Happened To A&F
Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the few non-essential retailers to post a quarterly profit despite Covid-related store closures. But at the end of 2014, then-CEO Mike Jeffries was forced to resign after A&F posted 11 consecutive quarters of comp store sales declines. It has been a long climb back to growth and profitability.
A&F’s monolithic vision of “you can’t sit with us” aspiration wasn’t relevant to a new generation of teens. And if you compared the product offering in the early 2010’s with the few garments on display in the Quarterly, you would see that the assortment hadn’t evolved much since the brand’s late 90’s heyday. Even so, A&F was one of few non-luxury retailers that refused to discount or lower prices after the financial crash of 2008.
If faced with this problem of declining relevance and massive value destruction, what would you do?
Discussions of cultural relevance are typically tied to brand, and discussions of brand are rarely tied to product. And that is where most struggling brands go wrong: they attempt a “rebrand” without thorough diligence of the product assortment as it relates to the current and desired customer base. Or they “slap some digital on it”, investing massive amounts of capital to oil up a broken machine.
Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t do either of those things. Instead, the multi-year turnaround effort that kicked off in 2017 focused on de-branding—doing away with the shirtless store greeters and aggressive store scenting (RIP my old job), investing in eCommerce and, most importantly, focusing on developing really cute clothes that teens and young adults wanted to wear, regardless of their self-professed tribe.
Speaking from a pure consumer perspective (although I’m older than the target customer), the merch is cute and the prices are reasonable. The old A&F had a strict “brand book” and campaign imagery shot by Bruce Weber. The new A&F uses UGC as the main product images on its website.
Comp store sales were growing in 2018, although that growth slowed down in 2019. Like most retailers heavily dependent on physical store sales, A&F suffered a loss during its first quarter of Covid-era sales. But, surprisingly, the brand reported a profit for its latest quarterly results on August 27th despite a lower revenue base. Continued focus on cost reduction, eCommerce growth and relevant merchandise contributed to the win.
It seems that the Gen Y and Gen Z mega-brand has to be an anti-brand, providing a canvas for the aspiration of the individual. These need to be Heart-first brands, with a focus on the relationship between the consumer and the product.
The macro environment has not been hospitable to the germination of new “premium lifestyle” brands. Those that successfully focus on the relationship between product and public perception are either working off a base of credibility built in a different era (heritage brands), or focus on telegraphing in group status to niche communities.
But the pendulum always swings back in the other direction. We’re seeing the flaws of peak individuality, and people across demographic and psychographic categories are rediscovering the value of human connection and community—now that it’s been taken away from us.
Brands that have managed to maintain a strong balance sheet should start considering this question: what will be tomorrow’s teen ingroup uniform? And what will be tomorrow’s platform for world building?
What I Wrote Since Last Time
The 3 Dimensions of eCommerce Traffic - where does your traffic really come from? Hint: the answer is not “digital marketing”
And One More Story I Think You’ll Like
I found this PDF scan containing what appears to be all of the fashion spreads (but none of the articles) from a 2003 edition of the A&F Quarterly. NSFW, obviously.
Because that’s not really a story…I wouldn’t have seen the A&F Quarterly oral history that inspired this edition without my paid membership to 2PM. Web puts out great content that makes you think. If you’re into retail, sign up.