If you were a teen growing up a decade ago, chances that you remember Abercrombie and Fitch as being the epitome of cool are fairly high. The sex-meets-Ivy League aesthetic of the brand and its logo-clad hoodies and tees marked the style of a generation of high school students.
In those glory days, Abercrombie’s concept stood out among retailers: The stores were dimly lit and blasting music, employees were called “models” instead of store associates, the scent of Abercrombie’s signature scent “Fierce” filled the air… It didn’t matter that this penetrating odor would stick to a new purchase for days, nor that the poor lighting conditions made it virtually impossible to decipher any tags or logos – it only added to the brand’s mystery .
But those days are long gone. Abercrombie and Fitch has slowly but steadily fallen out of fashion. Driven by a change in youth culture which places self-expression above conformity and fuelled by a stream of controversies that have harmed the public image of the brand, the company has seen a constant decline in popularity and sales.
In order to turn the brand around, the company has decided to take a radical step: As of spring 2015, all logos shall be banned from apparel sold in the US. “In the spring season, we’re looking to take the North American logo business to practically nothing,” CEO Mike Jeffries announced on Thursday commenting on the company’s quarterly results. No more moose. No more A&F. Instead, a new, sleek, contemporary aesthetic.
Too soon for rebranding
While the shedding of logos is certainly a step in the right direction, there are indications that it may be too late, or rather too soon, to rebrand the struggling business.
When Abercrombie and Fitch first emerged as a brand in the 1990s, it had been around for almost a century. Limited Brands bought the antiquated sporting goods retailer and Mike Jeffries, a so-called visionary obsessed with youth culture and style, resurrected it and turned it into a sought-after lifestyle brand. Jeffries’ vision of “cool” resonated well with teenagers at the turn of the millennium and was a major driving force behind Abercrombie’s success. But the CEO’s outlook was myopic. It did not see the evident change that was starting to take place in teenagers’ lives. Driven by the internet and the power of social media, teenagers began to create their own lifestyles instead of aspiring to one that was readily handed to them. A few years into the 00’s, a brand such as Abercrombie and Fitch no longer had a place in young shoppers’ lives.
Last year, Abercrombie and Fitch was the delivered the ultimate death-blow when quotes from an old interview surfaced online in which Jeffries said the brand targeted only cool, good-looking people. ‘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,” Jeffries stated. At the time when the interview was recorded, some loyal brand enthusiasts might have agreed with this insensitive statement but in the age of social media it was an invitation to riot. The damage to the brand could not be repaired.
With this in mind, It is highly doubtful that banning the logo alone can save Abercrombie’s brand. Marketers know that a strong brand is regarded to evoke both a high level of brand awareness and strong, favourable and unique brand associations. While Abercrombie and Fitch still enjoys a high level of familiarity among its target, it’s brand associations have drastically shifted from “cool, young and spirited ” to “overpriced, pretentious and conformist”. Turning these around this will take more than a change of design, it will take a change from the company within, if not an entirely new generation of customers.
Maybe Abercrombie and Fitch would be best advised to let the brand sink into oblivion once more, and resurrect it only when a sweet air of nostalgia clings to its name. Brands that have been successful with this strategy are New Balance, the legendary 80s and 90s footwear brand which made a major comeback in 2012, and J. Crew which was once synonymous with conservative, preppy style and recently reinvented itself in a fresh take. However, both companies were patient and waited until a new generation of customers had emerged that would give their brand an entirely new meaning. We shall wait until next spring to see whether Abercrombie’s new, logo-free design will be the beginning of a new era for the brand.