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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.

Are Brands Required To Market To Everyone?
  • 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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