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Inside Abercrombie’s Plot To Win Over Gen Z, Where Everyone’s A Cool Kid

Abercrombie & Fitch has had many makeovers in its 125-year history. Can it shed its image as a mall brand for white, privileged, oversexed preppy kids?

Inside Abercrombie’s Plot To Win Over Gen Z, Where Everyone’s A Cool Kid
[Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]

As a member of my high school debate team, I was not cool enough to buy Abercrombie & Fitch—or so the brand told me.

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Mike Jeffries, its CEO from 1993 to 2014, famously had no interest in my business. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told Salon in 2006. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” As a young woman of color too busy studying for the SATs to try out for the cheerleading squad, I had no doubt he meant me.

The ads told me that, too. Based on what I saw, Jeffries’s definition of cool referred to people who were athletic, scantily clad, and almost exclusively white. I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation, who studies how advertising affects young people, came to a similar conclusion. “Jeffries was particularly interested in his brand representing a very specific kind of person,” she said back when Jeffries still controlled Abercrombie’s branding. “That person tended to be Caucasian, and thin, and blonde, and blue eyed, and preppy.”

Rise And Fall

Jeffries’s brand of elitism worked like a charm for more than a decade. allowing him to transform Abercrombie from an irrelevant outdoor clothier to a multibillion-dollar powerhouse. But then, Abercrombie’s fate took a turn. Starting with the 2008 recession, the company’s revenues went into a tailspin, and unlike many other retailers, it never recovered. In 2012, its share price began to tank.

Retail analysts attribute this decline to a cocktail of toxic ingredients. Part of it had to do with the fact that cheaper fast-fashion brands dominated the post-recession market, making Abercrombie’s high price point seem too expensive. Then there was the fact that Abercrombie never invested much in customer service, famously preferring to hire unqualified staff that looked like the models in its catalogs instead of experienced personnel. One customer service index found that Abercrombie had the lowest rating out of 22 companies in 2015, famously beating out Walmart.

And then there was the company’s racist and discriminatory behavior that many believe was what really did Abercrombie in. Since the early 2000s, Abercrombie had been making T-shirts with offensive slogans on them, including one featuring two slant-eyed Asian men saying, “Wong Brothers: Two Wongs Can Make It White,” and another saying, “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.” This prompted many teens to boycott the brand.

In early 2003, Abercrombie faced a class-action lawsuit from employees who claimed that black, Asian, and Latino people were either not hired or forced to work in back rooms where they wouldn’t be seen by patrons. A decade later, the company faced another lawsuit from a Muslim woman claiming the company did not hire her because she wore a hijab; she won when the case was brought to the Supreme Court. In the words of one Fusion writer, Abercrombie had slowly “offended people into irrelevancy.”

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Over the last few years, Abercrombie has been scrambling to fix itself. In late 2014, Jeffries was ousted by the board after six years of tumbling sales. With a new leadership team in place–including a new CEO, CMO, and head of design–Abercrombie is trying to engineer a transformation in the hopes that it can win over the next generation of young people. If you happen to walk by an Abercrombie store at the mall, you’ll immediately note the lack of pornographic billboards featuring chiseled shirtless men staring down at you with scorn. Instead, there are images of twentysomethings of various ethnicities and body types smiling in a welcoming manner.

Early signs show that this new strategy appears to be working. In Abercrombie’s most recent financial report, revenues are going back up. Its net sales for 2017 across all the Abercrombie & Fitch brands–including Hollister and Abercrombie Kids–were $3.5 billion, up 5% from last year. But after nearly two decades of Abercrombie being associated with racism, exclusion, and mean-spiritedness, can it really remake itself as a diverse, inclusive, friendly brand that aligns with how today’s young people think and feel?

[Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]

Targeting Generation Z

As part of Abercrombie’s transformation, the brand has gotten out of the teen market altogether and is pursuing a more mature clientele. It is now focusing on a very narrow demographic: 21- to 24-year-olds. This is squarely hitting generation Z, the oldest of whom are 21, and will be Abercrombie’s entire target demographic in a few years. “We were finding that there was too much overlap between Hollister and Abercrombie,” explains Fran Horowitz, who was promoted to CEO a year ago after running the Hollister brand, which targets teens. “We thought our most effective strategy would be to go deep and focus on the very specific needs of young people who are just leaving college and starting their own lives.”

It’s an interesting strategy, because it allows the brand to reconnect with the very same people who remember the brand when it was still cool. When today’s twentysomethings were tweens, Abercrombie was still an aspirational brand that had currency in middle schools. Abercrombie believes it can capture these customers a decade later, capitalizing on their positive associations with the brand while also adapting to their current point of view. “I have three gen Z kids at home, and Abercrombie is never talked about,” says David Stillman, a gen Z expert and the author of Gen Z at Work. “Abercrombie’s job might be to introduce themselves to gen Z, not even reintroduce themselves.”

This approach is perfectly captured by the brand’s new tagline, “This is the time.” In an emotional ad that dropped last year, the narrator elaborates on what this means. “This is the time to screw up, meet all the wrong people, learn by doing,” he says. “In 60 years, when the scars have become lessons and the risks have become rewards, these are the images that will surface. These are the days you’ll remember.”

The ad features a cast of diverse, fully clothed young adults doing very relatable things: exploring new cities, dealing with breakups, arguing over a project at work, and flinging pumpkins in a pumpkin patch. Rather than encouraging viewers to be sexy or desirable, the video seemed to them to enjoy the freedom and adventure that comes with being young. It’s exactly the kind of video that I would have seen myself in when I was younger.

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“We’re not trying to be fantastical,” says Will Smith, who joined as CMO a year ago and oversaw the creation of this new campaign. “We’re trying to be as real and credible as we possibly can, and not be contrived in any way.”

It’s the epitome of multicultural, with people of all ethnicities in each shot. It is reminiscent of ’90s United Colors of Benetton ads that were very overtly diverse. But according to Stillman, coming on too strong when it comes to diversity might not work. “Gen Z is way beyond accepting diversity,” Stillman says. “They expect it. Drawing too much attention to being diverse might backfire because it might force gen Z to confront the brand’s history of not being diverse.”

A new TV spot that just went live in January explores young love and sexuality. It’s a stark departure from Jeffries’ soft-core porn vibe. The ad features several multiracial couples. One shares a milkshake at a diner before proceeding to make out in a bathroom. Another goes for a ride on a vintage motorbike, while a third dances in a club. Two women go skinny dipping in a lake. The ad is sexual for sure, but it is less about being risqué and titillating, and more about intimacy and relationship.

“Today’s 21- to 24-year-olds are a little more (sexually) conservative and prefer slightly more coverage in their clothes,” says Smith, who commissioned a lot of in-depth research into the psychology of this cohort. “They’re really focused on the bigger picture: Planning for their future, getting jobs, making a difference in the world. They’re at a critical stage in their life, and we think we can help support them through this phase.”

[Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]

Redefining Sexy

This shift away from explicit sexuality has influenced every part of the brand. The stores no longer feature enormous black-and-white pictures of naked men whose crotches are situated at eye level. “I don’t want you to walk away thinking you won’t see sexy imagery supporting this brand,” Smith says. “But we want to be a little bit more tasteful. Our goal is to have you see this imagery and feel emotionally connected to it.”

This also applies to the clothing. Abercrombie’s look has been transformed by Aaron Levine, SVP of men’s and women’s design, who joined the company two years ago from Club Monaco. In the past, Abercrombie clothes were a sexed-up version of the classic all-American wardrobe: lumberjack shirts that were ultra-tight-fitting, denim skirts exposing as much leg as possible, tank tops that were both low cut and midriff-exposing.

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[Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]
Levine wants to explore sexiness in his collections, but not in the same way as in the past. “I don’t think sexy is about tight or short,” Levine says with a laugh. “That sounds more like ill-fitting. Sexiness is totally subjective: Your idea of sexy might be totally different from mine.” In general, pieces are looser fitting than they were in the past and are designed for comfort. “There’s been a whole cultural shift,” says Levine. “Sexiness is more about being comfortable in your own skin, and our goal is to make our customers feel good in our clothes.”

As he and his team work through each new season, their goal is to provide a full range of outfits that will take young adults throughout all their non-work endeavors, from lazy Sundays in bed to house parties to swimming to going out for a walk. The brand specializes on denim and outwear–categories the brand has been known for in the past–but also extends to loungewear, activewear, swimwear, and dresses.

In each piece, Levine draws inspiration from Abercrombie’s archive of clothes, including garments made for outdoorsmen, the military, and varsity sports as far back as the late 1800s. The brand once clothed icons like Amelia Earhart, Ernest Hemingway, and Teddy Roosevelt. “We’re a 125-year-old brand that has dressed pioneers and former presidents,” he says. “From all that inspiration, from all those years, we try to draw from the best of the best. To me, thoughtful American casual style transcends a lot of trend.”

Abercrombie & Fitch, Polaris, Columbus, Ohio. [Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]

Lowering Prices

Abercrombie’s exclusionary image wasn’t the only thing holding it back. In the past, the brand’s garments were priced significantly higher than the fast fashion brands like Forever21 and H&M that were competing for the dollars of teens and twentysomethings.

The brand has now lowered its prices. Jeans are 30% lower than they used to be, with prices starting at $78. Basic T-shirts are around $20, dresses go for $58, and jackets go for $120. Abercrombie claims to focus on producing higher-quality garments than its competitors. There appear to be regular sales, where clothes go for a fraction of those prices, making them on par with fast fashion brands. A recent sale offered 50% off everything in the clearance section, plus an additional 30% off three items or more.

I recently tried on a couple of items of clothes from the collection. The jeans appeared to be very carefully designed to have a flattering fit. There were also several high-end garments like $120 cashmere sweaters and $98 silk button-ups. These more expensive pieces were interspersed with plenty of cheaper items. Overall, the items are boxy and loose fitting. In the past, Abercrombie was called out for not having any sizes beyond 10. Now, the brand extends to XL and size 32 in denim. So, while the brand still excludes the 68% of the market, which is a size 14 or larger, it is much more inclusive than it was just a few years ago.

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In the past, price was a marker of quality, but over the last five years, brands like Everlane have popularized the idea of “affordable luxury,” that is, well-made products without massive markups. Levine believes that today’s customer is better able to assess quality and does not associate low prices with poor craftsmanship. “It’s not about being cheap,” Levine says. “It’s about the value of the product we are offering.”

Increasingly, Abercrombie’s customers are shopping online rather than in store. Over the last two years, the brand has shuttered 93 stores in the U.S.–34 of which were from the Abercrombie brand–but the company is still very committed to brick and mortar.

Abercrombie is rolling out new store concepts that will allow customers to have a more seamless transition from digital to in-store shopping. You are now able to purchase a product online and pick it up in store, for instance. And Abercrombie has a new app that customers can shop from, but also earn rewards and exclusive offers. In less than a year since it launched, the app already has close to four million subscribers, Horowitz says. (And 14 million subscribers when you count both the Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch brands).

[Photo: courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch]

Will The Changes Pay Off?

It’s very clear from these ads that diversity is now front and center at Abercrombie. During Jeffries’s tenure at Abercrombie, the company was repeatedly called out for being bigoted and exclusionary, with regular faux pas like creating racist T-shirts and refusing to hire hijab-clad women as sales assistants. Among the changes afoot, Abercrombie is trying to be culturally and ethnically inclusive, starting with its employee base. These days, Abercrombie’s management is aggressively hiring minorities: More than 60% of its 43,770 U.S. employee base self-identifies as a person of color, and 40% of its management is female.

Levine believes that this internal shift will go a long way toward making Abercrombie an authentically welcoming and inclusive company, one that will attract today’s progressive twentysomethings. “We’re a pretty diverse village here,” Levine says. “And if we create something that resonates with the village, we’re pretty sure it’s going to resonate with the wider demographic.”

These changes have been set in motion, but there is no way to tell whether Abercrombie will be able to successfully right the ship and return to its former glory. “It’s not out of the question that they will make a comeback, but it’s not guaranteed,” Stillman says. “If a turnaround is going to work, the brand is going to have to do a hell of a lot more than repackage itself as diverse. They’re going to have to show that they really understand what drives gen Z, who want to buy from brands that are working to make the world a better place.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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