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How gun control and gay rights became key to selling jeans

40-year-old youth clothing maker American Eagle is resurgent after learning how to tap into the progressive social leanings of Generation Z.

How gun control and gay rights became key to selling jeans
[Photos: courtesy American Eagle]

For many brands, steering clear of the more controversial issues of the day is paramount to the bottom line. You need only look to the 2016 election and the continued divisions in American politics to see why. But, increasingly, some brands are risking the ire of wide swaths of the population to do what they say is the right thing.

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Just last week, United Airlines partnered with the pro-immigrant bipartisan tech group FWD.us to offer free flights to help reunite families of migrants separated at the border. Right-wing anti-immigration and pro-Trump pundits pounced. “Free flights for illegals on United, while the rest of us pay full fare?” one headline whined.

Helping ease the trauma suffered by innocent children ripped from their parents’ arms seems, in the scheme of things, an easy-to-defend measure of good will, especially when the #FamiliesBelongTogether movement has supporters in both major parties.

For some brands, particularly those focused on younger consumers, political activism has become part of their everyday marketing strategy–and it’s paying off.


RELATED: Gen Z: The Frugal, Brand-Wary, Determined Anti-Millennials


After the deadly February massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there began organizing to demand gun control. Their voices led to the massive March for Our Lives national movement, one that has left the National Rifle Association  and conservatives apoplectic.

The teen-age activists caught the attention of American Eagle Outfitters, a 40-year-old youth-oriented clothing brand that its outpacing similar retailers and has seen its stock (NYSE: AEO) soar in the past 12 months. The company sent an email blast to its database of millions of customers urging them to RSVP for the march and posted an image about the event to its 2.7 million Instagram followers.

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[Photo: American Eagle]
“Our high school years are supposed to be about freedom and fun–not fear and violence,” the email said. “We are committed to doing whatever we can to support (the students’) efforts to make our schools safer.”

Taking Gen Z’s Pulse

It was a bold move for the brand, which still operates 1,000 stores throughout the country, many in red state havens like Hoover, Alabama, and Minot, North Dakota, where gun lovers rule.  On Instagram, it was clear the brand had alienated some. “Stay out of politics, and do what you’re good at… selling clothes,” wrote user “heyitzjim” underneath the brand’s March for Our Lives post. “Many are using these terrible events as a means to justify ending the Second Amendment instead of looking at the root of the problem.”

[Photo: American Eagle]
While the brand hasn’t tracked exactly how many customers it may have lost by taking political stances, it’s fully aware that it is angering some–not only on guns but also for supporting the LGBTQ community.

“We do get some pushback,” Chad Kessler, American Eagle’s global brand president, says. “We are a big brand and proudly all throughout the country. Many of our customers are more conservative.”

The company’s decision to support the progressive causes of its target audience (ages 15 to 25)  does not come casually. While it’s been doing focus groups and customer surveys for decades, the company now says its  data science and analytics teams help bolster its move–as do its Gen Z employees who are  tasked with steering executives away from ideas that may be off-putting to their peers.

“This knowledge gives us power in the market,” Kessler says.

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[Photo: American Eagle]

Reflecting diversity

American Eagle has found that Gen Zers think of themselves as diverse, politically involved, and interested in engaging with people outside of the digital realm (yes, they like shopping in stores.) That diversity extends to ethnicity, sexuality, and even body image.

[Photo: American Eagle]
 “We try and speak to the politics of this generation,” says Kessler. “Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history. They have this expectation that brands will reflect this diversity.”

American Eagle has been unabashed in its support for LGBTQ youth and has used trans models and same-sex couples in its ads. For Pride celebrations this year, it sold T-shirts proclaiming,  “love is love” and “the future is equal”–and donated proceeds to the It Gets Better campaign that helps ease coming out. Kessler himself, along with his employees, also posted  a Facebook video to back the movement. Gen Z’s embrace of its LGBTQ friends has also prompted other brands to reach out,  like Converse, Levi’s, Urban Outfitters, Madewell, and Abercrombie.

Make no mistake, American Eagle and other brands are, in part, becoming more socially progressive because their customers are. A large-scale study of the political views of incoming college students backs that up: A full 78% say they hold liberal to moderate views on social issues.  That’s not to say its customers are all in. On its social media posts about LGBTQ empowerment, defenders of inclusion often duke it out with people who would rather American Eagle should stay out of the conversation.

Real people, real customers

In American Eagle’s research, the concept of “authenticity” keeps surfacing whenever it analyzes Gen Z behavior. That means Photoshopped images of models with unachievable body types are out. This has been hard for some companies that have historically cultivated a brand around a monolithic, aspirational customer. Take Abercrombie and Fitch, for instance, whose campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s featured hairless muscular white bros straight out of a clean-cut  frat house. Or Urban Outfitters, whose imagery featured too-cool-for-school hipsters.

At the beginning of 2018, American Eagle launched a platform called AE X Me, which taps real customers, based on their Instagram posts, to become brand ambassadors. Rather than using models, the brand photographs these real people in their homes and schools. The brand’s newest campaign, which drops today, is shot in neighborhoods around Detroit and Nashville.

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This inherently means using folks with a wide range of body types and personal style, from preppy to grungy or retro. “It has been an adjustment to turn over some control,” Kessler says. “Brands historically have tightly controlled how they are portrayed. But we do believe we have to turn over some aesthetic control to our customers, because it makes us stronger.”


RELATED: Has Purpose Made Brands Forget How To Be Cool?


That control means reacting quickly when customers call out AE for a product or advertising fail. Last year, when some noted that a new men’s cuff bracelet looked like a slave shackle, American Eagle quickly removed them from stores. This is also how the brand assesses the content that is going out through AE X Me. If any of this imagery doesn’t resonate, the brand will ditch it.

AE’s new approach has led to more customer engagement–a 20% increase across social media and a monthly follower growth of 205% on Instagram since the AE x ME campaign launch.

[Photo: American Eagle]

The common thread

To create a single narrative in the midst of all these voices, the brand has focused on denim, a product that most American teens wear, regardless of their individual aesthetic. In a new digital denim guide out today, customers of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities  use American Eagle jeans as the foundation pieces for very different looks.

Kessler believes that this one flagship product strategy works with a wide range of aesthetics and has allowed American Eagle to dominate the denim industry. According to industry data, AE is the number two best-selling jeans brand in the United States, and the top jeans brand for Gen Z.

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“Even when the customer is co-curating the campaign with us, we always stand for jeans,” Kessler says. “That way there is a consistency that threads through everything.”

There’s another trend working to AE’s advantage: Unlike millennials, who embraced e-commerce in all its forms and have long been abandoning brick-and-mortar shopping, Gen Zers see things a little differently. They grew up with shopping online as the norm, watching their parents buy groceries on Instacart and school supplies on Amazon. For them, it’s the store that’s the novelty.

A study out last year found 98 percent preferred the in-store experience over online. Kessler says that if AE focuses on making the in-person shopping experience even more fun, it will be at a powerful advantage because it already has a network of nearly 1,000 stores. Unlike many brands, who see their retail footprint as a liability, Kessler sees it as a huge opportunity to build an even deeper relationship with its customers.

AE has been tinkering with new concepts to make stores interesting. In its Union Square/NYC store–which it calls AE Studio–it installed a wall of washing machines to allow customers to do a load of laundry for free while hanging out with friends or studying in a lounge seating area. It also set up a “maker’s shop” where customers can modify their jeans with patches and other alterations to make one-of-a-kind pieces. And a  gallery there features American Eagle collaborations with other designers and artists.

As Gen Zers leave college, get jobs, and have more disposable income, the world is going to be watching them closely to see if they continue to respond to brands that reflect their liberal and inclusive politics, and give them a platform to express themselves.

For now, American Eagle is using its insights to elbow its way to the front of a market crowded with youth brands.  “This generation is really focused on individuality and self-expression,” Kessler says. “Our job is to give kids a voice and amplify their message.”

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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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