May 16, 2013

Saving Abercrombie & Fitch in 5 Easy Steps.

 Dear Mike Jeffries,

I’d like to help you fix this mess that you made.

Not because I like you or your brand—both of which are, if you ask me, pretty lame—but because it’s a fun and easy puzzle. And because the thousands of people who work for you don’t deserve to lose their jobs just because you said some incredibly ridiculous and cruel things. (Whether or not you actually think those things is irrelevant to the health of your brand right now.) And because it’s a great case study for anyone doing brand management in any form. And, well, it’s fun, like a game, a chance to do the impossible.

With that said, here’s how to save your company, pronto:

1) Resign as CEO. Now. Remember in 2012 when Liz Thompson, then CEO of Susan G. Komen did roughly what you just did —discredit the brand, product, motives and value of her brand by saying stupid shit? The brand tanked. Consumers walked away from the walks, the products, the mission. Social media took her apart. And within days she resigned, because if she didn’t, the whole organization would fold. You are now that toxic to your own brand.

Abercrombie and Fitch was, let’s be clear, already a den of creepy sexualization of young people and pretty much only worn by douchey guys, Jersey Shore style. A & F has, for years, been the fashionable incarnation of the kind of socialized sexism that is endemic to rape culture, so it’s not like you have a squeaky clean brand to begin with. But you just explained, in your own words, why. You told us that your brand is built on the idea that men should be big and strong jocks, and girls should be small and weak. And that only “cool” kids count.

Since you are not my client, I’m gonna ask, “Are you a complete moron?” (If you were my client, I’d ask you that, but charge you $250 an hour for the ensuing discussion.) Even if that’s what you think, that is your inside voice. The one inside your head. When you speak, you speak for your entire company, which means you cannot say things like that. Ever.

Why? Because in the real world, even assholes don’t want to admit they’re assholes, and now, wearing your brand is like a giant sign saying “I’m an asshole and I know it.”

Yup. You need to resign in order to save your company. Which now needs a major brand overhaul in order to survive.

2) That overhaul starts with your mea culpa. I think it is really wrong that people are picking on you for what you look like. It is the same mean-spirited bigotry of which you are being accused. It is also, however, where you start.

I am assuming that you were bullied as a kid. Probably because of what you looked like. Maybe you were even overweight. I’m going to assume that years of being oppressed for what you look like has given you a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in which you first learned to love (because we all need love) your oppressor, and then became your oppressor.

Your mea culpa must tell this story. Right now, trying to save your brand, I don’t even care if it’s true or not, tell it. (But, really, it must be true, because assholes aren’t born, they’re made.)

3) Your successors should use that story and use it as the foundation of CSR program that looks not only at bullying, but at how kids and teens need to respect each other’s value and boundaries. You will be very public about what you learned from this, your painful past, and how you’re going to try and make the world better. The whole campaign should be an anti-bullying platform, with the following departments:

>>Anti-bullying: A classic approach to kindness and compassion, but with a twist. You are in a unique spot to look at why bullies bully. Rather than the usual “bullies are bad,” you have a chance to do a “bullies are sad” thing, and turn the discussion a bit to how we can help stop the violence before it starts. How only broken and insecure people behave this way, so we have to heal them to heal the world.

>>Anti-Rape-Culture: You have particularly pissed off women and everyone who respects them. In your message that women should be small, and men big and strong, you have fed the idea that women are just to look cute for the big strong jocks who get them as prizes. I mean, what use are we if we are not cute enough for you? None. Yup, you’re going to work on a campaign to teach men how to respect women. See how we’re taking your fatal flaw and making it a strength for your brand. Cool.

>>Health and Fitness for all: Guess what—you’re now going to sponsor health and fitness programs in inner city schools. However, you’re not going to do it with the “fat is bad” message that you spewed. You’re going to do it with the “healthy people are beautiful” message that we deserve. As a CrossFit gym owner, I cannot tell you how many women have come to me upset that they are too fat, and after a few months found strength and pride they didn’t know they had because they could do things they never thought possible—not fit into things that people like you made. Beauty is about loving who you are and feeling empowered to be who you want to be, without fearing the judgement of others.

>>Every season you will have three products in your stores that raise money for these causes. You will also feature stories of real people doing the right thing in your marketing materials.

4) Although you will no longer be at the helm, your brand needs to evolve also. As gross as your ads with teen girls are, it’s the ones of the teen boys that worry me the most. Feminism has done a terrific job of making sure girls know that we don’t have to fall for the media ploys that say our only value is as skinny sex-objects. There has not yet, however, been any such awakening for young men, and your brand is, frankly, the worst of them. The irony that it is bullshit bullying, like what you just did, that makes guys think they need to be tough, strong and perfect is not lost on me, though it may be lost on you. That changes now. From now on, your brand is marketed with real people, doing real things, as strong, healthy and happy youth. Think American Apparel but not predatory and gross. Or J Crew, but not deadly boring. No more telling guys that they are only cool if they have six-pack abs. That stops now, because it is as bad for boys and men as years of being told to be skinny is for girls and women.

5) Do not, at any point, pretend that we all just misunderstood you. We are not stupid. Admit that you said awful things, because that’s what you believed at the time. Show us—don’t just tell us—how you came to learn how awful those things are, and came to understand a better way. Do not try to fake your way out of this. Own it. Wear it like a cheap shirt sold to you by a woman in whose eyes you are only barely comfortable looking because you know she sees right through you.

There are no guarantees here, but it’s a start. Because your personal brand is toast, the only thing to do is try to save your corporate brand. But, just to be clear, it didn’t work for Lance Armstrong. It only kinda worked for Susan G. Komen. But there are plenty of examples of mea culpas turning things around: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer.

If you were my client, you’d be getting 40 lashes now. What on earth made you think it was a good idea to say that shit? But the mother in me just feels terribly sorry for you. You must have had a horrible childhood to hold such hideous views. I hope that you can find a way to heal yourself, and with it, your company. But in order to do either one of those things, it’s time for you to step down, son. Back up, turn around, and start doing the right things. It’s never too late to do the right thing and become the kind of man that is, well, a good man. A smart man. A man who earns the love and respect that we all deserve.



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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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