A&F: Exclusive or Exclusionary?

How and why did a little "spark" in the news seven years ago become a conflagration today?
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How and why did a little "spark" in the news seven years ago become a conflagration today? Michael Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, and his "spin doctors" have to be wondering why a quote of his in Salon magazine those many years ago was unearthed recently by Business Insider. But, the real "head scratcher" was how that quote caught on fire across every major print and broadcast medium, resulting in a virally driven nationwide controversy. And, while I was called upon by BI for my opinion of Jeffries' comments, and then solicited across most of the rest of the now-galvanized media, let me be clear that it was certainly not my opinion of Jeffries' quote that sparked the conflagration. It was simply that Jeffries' was a quote "whose time had come."

And the now, the not so "little" quote by CEO Jeffries was:

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

In fact, this quote is becoming a clarion call to action among a disgruntled group of consumers (and their supporters), a group that Abercrombie & Fitch does not want to be seen wearing their brand -- namely consumers who need to wear larger sizes, which A&F simply does not make, or offer in their stores.

As a result of the resurrection of Jeffries' quote, there have been several protests and boycotting groups outside of A&F stores around the country. So one has to ask the question: Is there something different going on that caused this level of outrage in the minds and behavior of these consumers today than seven years ago? Perhaps the quote was tucked away in Salon magazine back then, while today it literally got blasted across the nation, and likely ginned up even further virally through social networks, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, et al.

The backlash may also be due to a sensitizing and more inclusive culture, inviting and often protecting the participation of all those even on the outlier fringes of society. Or, are these outraged, excluded groups just solely and more narrowly focused on A&F with no broader societal goals in mind? I think it's both. And, therefore, will this time be different for A&F's exclusionary behavior?

Well, just last week, Jeffries was quoted from a statement he issued that while his 2006 comments were "taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense." But, then he further emphasized A&F's strategy of marketing to a very focused segment of customers. As in the past, he once again called A&F an "aspirational brand," nevertheless, adding that they were dedicated to "diversity and inclusion."

So, one might conclude Jeffries' answer to begin offering large sizes, was a big, fat "no" (no pun intended).

And this pretty much sums up all of those serendipitous interviews I had with media world regarding my professional opinion of Jeffries' comments. He was one of the first and most successful lifestyle brand visionaries when he positioned the brand a quarter century ago. The stores are truly a lifestyle experience for a very clearly defined, young, cool and sexy customer that Jeffries has focused on with fierce discipline. He has not diverged from that position, nor do I believe he ever will.

Professionally and strategically this is a "marketing 101" business model that has, and will continue to succeed -- without large sizes.

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women's Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. He is co-author of The New Rules of Retail (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.

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