Are Brands Required To Market To Everyone?

Abercrombie & Fitch recently came under fire due to its lack of clothing for plus-sized women. The author wonders if this means Disney should also be pilloried because it markets primarily to kids and families.

  • Item: The Sports Authority retail chain only caters to those interested in indoor and outdoor activities. Those who wish to merely sit on the couch and watch TV while they snack are deliberately being excluded.
  • Item: Whole Foods grocery stores do not stock Coca-Cola, Oreo cookies, or numerous other consumer favorites! Why are its shoppers being forced to buy only food that is healthy to eat?
  • Item: The Home & Garden TV Network (HGTV) only shows programming about buying, selling, and renovating homes. Are they bullying people into only caring about nice houses?

Do the preceding complaints seem slightly silly? After all, none of the above businesses make any pretense about what audience they’re serving—and alternatives to their particular products are readily available elsewhere.

If you agree with that thought, then you should also agree that the huge furor currently raging across the Internet regarding the fact that clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch refuses to sell products that fit oversized women is ridiculous—as is the controversy over remarks made by Mike Jeffries, A&F’s CEO, way, way back in 2006:

"That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that."

Unfortunately, many are demanding that A&F must, in fact, market to everyone—resulting in Mr. Jeffries having to apologize while lawyers decide on how many lawsuits could be filed against him and his company, teens lead protests at his stores, and A&F is suddenly accused of being pro-bullying.

Okay, so A&F doesn’t sell XL sizes to women. Well, at the women’s clothing store chain, Lane Bryant, the smallest size for a T-shirt is a 14—a plus-size. Why aren’t they marketing to thin women? Because, of course, the brand never intended to sell to them.

The irony of this controversy is that never before in the history of mankind have brands so specifically and extensively marketed to target groups, thanks to the existence of Big Data. Niche brands like A&F are created to attract a specific consumer type—as almost every business that isn’t a big mainstream brand does.

So why are they being pilloried in the public eye? Should Disney also be under fire because it markets primarily to kids and families? Should Jaguar be blackballed because it sells its fast and furious image to affluent guys who like a lot of power behind the wheel? Why aren’t senior citizens up in arms because Mountain Dew commercials don’t feature their favorite hits from the 1950s?

Of course, companies aim their branding and marketing efforts at the specific buyers most likely to buy from them. Branding expert Walker Smith hits it right on the nose when he writes: "Targeting is a core, purposeful activity undertaken in support of organizational objectives. It is essential for organizations to narrow their focus in order to concentrate on their mission and not waste scarce resources on things or people not central to that mission. Organizations accomplish this by targeting....Protests about unfairness should not cause brand marketers to question the merits of targeting."

You won’t find "I’m With Stupid" T-shirts for sale at Saks Fifth Avenue and you won’t find Bazooka Joe bubble gum on the counter at your local Neiman Marcus. That would make their customers feel as though these luxury chains had suddenly plummeted from their high-profile branding perches. They’re okay as being perceived as snobby, because that serves their brand, just as Walmart is okay with being perceived as being a discount store because it serves their brand.

And all of that should be okay with all of us. Let’s allow brands to be brands and sell their stuff to the crowd they’ve build their businesses around. And let’s not bully them into doing what we want, just to make cheap political points that don’t really apply to the situation in question.

[Image: Flickr user Ludovic Bertron]

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  • Andy Hollandbeck

    Everything changes when your market is kids, who are just discovering who they are and what they are. I have no beef with the size of clothes that A&F sells, but the obvious flip side to "we want to market to cool, good-looking people" is that if you can't wear (or afford) A&F fashion, you are uncool and ugly.

    What Jeffries said wasn't "If you want to be cool and good-looking, wear A&F clothes." Instead, he implied was "If you aren't cool and good-looking, don't wear our clothes."

    And again, they are marketing to teenagers. I understand how people can equate his statements as being "pro-bully" because they can lead to the same results as actual bullying: depression, low self-esteem, suicide. Not to mention anorexia and bulimia.

    Marketing to one audience doesn't mean taking a swipe at everyone else. Especially when you're talking about kids.

  • Laura

    Luke, I'm wondering what your explanation would be for plus-sized clothing stores such as Lane Bryant and Torrid? While I understand where you are coming from I believe your argument doesn't support one of the many points John made.

    One of the most irritating factors about this entire fiasco is that, like the article mentioned, Jeffries has been saying this stuff for ages (at least since 2006). After brief research, I failed to find a direct quote by Jeffries which directly insults "fat people, ugly people, and losers" (as Clothesgirl said). The most insulting quote available is the one in this article, where Jeffries makes a completely valid point, "[...] we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that." In which case, he makes a statement similar to what any other CEO would say about their brand, given it has a target demographic and isn't marketing to the masses. It just so happens that the characteristics of the target market are physical.

    In the end, I truly believe that we all need to move on; the publicity A&F is receiving is only encouraging the loyalty of its teenybopper and foreign markets. 

  • Clothesgirl

    I agree with Luke; John has entirely missed the point.  A&F made derogatory comments about fat people, ugly people and losers.  Believe it or not, being derogatory to groups isn't 'not marketing to them' it's knowingly being cruel.  Hence the backlash.

  • Luke Keller

    It's not an issue of targets or intention, but of prevention. Abercrombie is actively preventing and discouraging a particular audience from purchasing it's products. To use your cited examples above, Whole Foods' products can be purchased by anyone, and they encourage any and all consumers to shop at their stores. Anyone can walk into a Sports Authority and purchase their goods. Neither of these company's CEO's have told anyone of a particular demographic that they do not want their business because of their physical appearance.

    The companies I cited above could arguably be exclusive in the sense that their products are not affordable by all, but affordability and physical appearance are two very different ethical dilemmas–the latter being discriminatory and the former being capitalism at work.