One Size Does Not Fit All: What to Learn from Abercrombie & Fitch’s Vanilla Rebranding Strategy

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Abercrombie & Fitch was all the hype. Teenagers queued for miles to get in the stores, and anybody who wanted to be perceived as cool lived and breathed Abercrombie & Fitch. But in the last few years, we haven’t heard much from the youth brand, until last year.

Since the beginning of 2016, Abercrombie & Fitch has made changes: the brand has revised its product offering, refurbished its stores, and launched a new and fresh advertising campaign. Abercrombie & Fitch is undertaking a rebranding.

So, why and how has the brand changed? Will this rebranding allow the clothing retailer to recapture its lost consumers? And what can we learn from Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding strategy?

1) Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding strategy: from cool and exclusive to accessible and inclusive

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s ascent: a cool and exclusive brand

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Abercrombie & Fitch was very popular among teenagers. The brand targeted good-looking, all-American and rebellious teens who aspired to be cool, attractive and fit.

Abercrombie & Fitch was then exclusionary, pedigreed, brash, conformist, but also cool, young, athletic, and good-looking. The brand alienated certain consumer segments, such as unpopular teens and older shoppers, to attract its core consumer.

This distinctive brand positioning translated in the stores to dim lighting, loud music, fierce cologne and good-looking sales personnel; and in the brand’s communication to fit, half-naked and confident models.

Abercrombie & Fitch Ad Campaign prior to Rebranding (Business Insider)

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s downfall: a controversial and discriminatory brand

Unfortunately for Abercrombie & Fitch, the brand no longer resonated with its core consumer in the early 2010s. Teens had evolved and valued instead inclusiveness and diversity, but the brand did not follow.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s cool and exclusive traits were then viewed as discriminatory, supremacist, provocative and controversial. Sales dropped and consumers deserted the stores; Abercrombie & Fitch needed to rebrand in order to stay relevant in the marketplace.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding goal: an accessible and inclusive brand

Since 2016, Abercrombie & Fitch is undertaking a rebranding. The brand would now like to target confident and fashion-minded young adults.

Abercrombie & Fitch wishes to position itself as inclusive, accessible, playful, candid, confident, American and effortlessly stylish. This is a clear break from its previous cool, and elitist traits.

As a result of its rebranding, Abercrombie & Fitch now sells varied clothes sizes, its stores are lighter and airier, and its advertising campaigns portray young, diverse and spirited Americans.

2) Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding results: a vanilla-flavoured brand

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s new target market is too broad

Abercrombie & Fitch ‘True Blues’ Fall 2016 Campaign (The Fashion Spot)

Following its rebranding, Abercrombie & Fitch is targeting confident and fashion-minded young adults. But this audience is very broad and includes anybody and everybody in their early 20s. And by targeting everybody, Abercrombie & Fitch is actually not appealing to anybody. Without a distinctive target market, the brand will not know who to attract and retain, which needs and aspirations to fulfill, what to stand for, and where to focus its marketing efforts. As a result, Abercrombie & Fitch will probably not attract many consumers.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s broad target hinders any significant market differentiation

Abercrombie & Fitch does not know who its core consumers are, and therefore does not know what to stand for and how to differentiate itself. The brand’s rebranding positioning is very similar to high-street retailers, like Zara, H&M and American Eagle Outfitters. But whereas its main competitors have significant market advantages or differentiators, such as Zara’s lead in fast fashion, H&M’s competitive prices or American Eagle’s individuality stand, Abercrombie & Fitch does not. The brand offers more expensive and less trendy clothes of the same quality as its competitors, and does not stand for any strong values in particular. And without a significant market differentiation, Abercrombie & Fitch will not stand out from the marketplace.

  • By breaking from its past, Abercrombie & Fitch suffers from contradictory brand values

Abercrombie & Fitch is trying to break from its past. The brand would like to position itself as inclusive, diverse and accessible. But this is in direct contradiction with its recent brand perceptions of discriminatory and supremacist. It will take time for Abercrombie & Fitch to be actually associated with inclusiveness and openness values, if the brand ever manages to engineer this brand image shift. In the meantime, the brand will be in limbo and will have contradictory values and associations. This will damage its new brand identity and heighten its weak brand differentiation.

  • By rejecting its heritage, Abercrombie & Fitch’s undermines its authenticity

Abercrombie & Fitch needed to rebrand and radically change its brand identity and values, because the brand did not evolve with its core consumers and thus no longer resonated with them. By drastically altering its brand values from exclusive and elitist to inclusive and accessible, Abercrombie & Fitch is not only breaking from its past, but also rejecting its heritage. In doing so, the brand is undermining its perceived authentic and iconic values. And in today’s crowded marketplace, these specific values are highly coveted by consumers. As a result, consumers’ trust for the brand will probably decrease, and this will negatively impact Abercrombie & Fitch’s already fickle sales.

What’s the bottom line?

Following its rebranding, Abercrombie & Fitch has radically changed its brand identity and values, because the brand did not adapt to its ever changing consumers over time. But Abercrombie & Fitch’s brand image and perceptions will take time to catch up, if they ever do. Abercrombie & Fitch should thus take special care to listen to its consumers and to evolve its brand identity over time.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebranding strategy is vanilla-flavoured: The brand is targeting too broad a target, and has a weak brand identity and little brand differentiation. As a result, Abercrombie & Fitch still does not stand out from the crowded marketplace and thus does not attract consumers. The brand’s sales declined even further throughout 2016. Abercrombie & Fitch should narrow its target audience, stand for relevant and appealing values, and differentiate itself significantly from its competitors.

3) What to learn from Abercrombie & Fitch’s vanilla rebranding strategy

The secret to successfully rebranding is this: Listen to your consumers and stand out from the crowd, neither of which Abercrombie & Fitch seems to have done.

In order to rebuild a brand that is relevant to your consumers and that stands out from the crowded marketplace, you should follow these 3 rules:

  • Clearly define and understand your consumers

You should always start any rebranding exercise by defining and understanding your consumers. Who are they? What need, challenge and/ or aspiration does your brand fulfill? And how do your consumers behave in the marketplace? You should then decide whether you would like to continue targeting your current consumers, or if you would like to target another consumer segment that is similar to your current audience. You could change your target market for different reasons:

  • If your core consumers have evolved and need to be refined.
  • If you believe your brand, products or services could appeal to another consumer segment.
  • To tap into a consumer segment not targeted by any other brand.

If you decide to shift your target market, you should then clearly define and understand your new audience.

Now:

You should ensure the target market you have defined for your brand is not too broad, but also not too narrow. You want to appeal to specific consumer segments with specific needs, challenges and aspirations that your brand, products or services can fulfill. If your target is too broad, your brand risks not appealing to anybody. But if your target is too narrow, you will limit your market and consumer base.

  • Stand for relevant values to differentiate your brand

From your consumer definition will follow your brand identity and values; they need to answer your consumer needs and aspirations, and appeal to your consumers. You must thus rebuild your brand for your consumers and with your consumers in mind.

Look:

You should significantly differentiate your brand from your competitors. In order to so, analyse your competitors’ market positioning and rebuild your brand identity, position and values to be clear, distinct and different. If you are not different from your competitors and you do not have a distinct brand offering, you will not stand out from the crowded marketplace.

  • Evolve your brand with your consumers

Brand image changes take time. You cannot change your brand image and associations from one day to the next, as they evolve slowly in the mind of the consumers. You should thus take the time to shift your brand identity and values over time.

In addition, consumers are forever evolving, and you need to ensure your brand evolves with them. One of the main reasons Abercrombie & Fitch lost its core consumers, and thus needed to rebrand, was because the brand did not adapt to its ever changing consumers.

Here’s the deal:

In order to adapt to your ever-changing consumers, you need to follow consumer, market and societal trends and understand how they affect your consumers, brand and market. You should also constantly monitor your consumers, and their needs, challenges, aspirations and behaviours, and evolve your brand identity and values in line with your consumer changes.

Do you have any rebranding experiences or learnings to share? How do you ensure your rebranding is distinct and relevant?

References: Bloomberg, CNBC, Business InsiderPR Newswire & Phoenix Investor Relations
Featured Image: ‘This is Abercrombie & Fitch’ Holiday 2016 Campaign (The Fashionisto)

Sonia is a branding strategist, involved in developing brand strategies and implementing marketing plans for iconic brands such as Aptamil, Cow & Gate, Lu and Playmobil. She can tackle any challenge, is very tenacious and has a passion for excellence.

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