Imagine that Ferrari stopped making fast cars, Aldi raised prices above competitors, and Paddy Power abandoned irreverent humour in favour of a serious, sombre tone. Abercrombie & Fitch's decision this week to make its branding invisible on its products might be seen as an equally contrarian move.
They have stopped doing the thing they are famous for. More than that, it appears to go against the brand’s very reason for being. This is a brand for which the brash, confident badging announces the wearer’s conformity to a mass-marketed ideal of some body-perfect image; where the logo acts as proxy for whatever discrepancies the garment conceals.
Take away the branding and the reference points back to the Bruce Weber photography and semi-naked store staff are gone.
Take away the branding and the reference points back to the Bruce Weber photography and semi-naked store staff are gone. All that’s left is American high-school casual wear – which is ten-a-penny and certainly not price competitive at A&F’s typically inflated price-points.
Having spent the first half of my career in the casual wear business I know that such brands rarely see product branding as a strategic consideration. The format, size, colour, typeface, placement of how the name gets applied is subject to endless variation alongside a host of other design decisions and really isn’t a big deal. It's in the very definition of fashion: tastes change. But in this case it does feel like it’s more significant than that. If it is to work it will need more than a great collection of fabrics and silhouettes.
Somehow A&F will need to shift the entire proposition of its brand – switching its consumer from extrinsic to intrinsic motivations to purchase and wear. Honestly, I don’t know if that can be achieved. I believe that their brand is too well set in its audience’s mind. And I suspect that audience is too young and systemically disloyal to care.
A brand that starts out with crystal clarity on what it wants to be has a greater chance of success
Of course the commercial imperative that sits behind this move is rapidly declining sales so it’s clear that something has to be done. But rather than try to so fundamentally reinvent the A&F brand my advice would be to introduce new brands, building new propositions from scratch. A brand that starts out with crystal clarity on what it wants to be, with a focused plan to achieve it, has a greater chance of success than a long-established brand that tries to fight against its own historical proposition.
I believe the cost/reward calculation with new brands – taking advantage of the existing infrastructure and resources the business has – would prove significantly better in the medium to long term. At the same time, keep the A&F brand largely as it is, just downscale. Maybe go back to the archives of the original 1892 company’s range of ‘sporting and excursion goods’ and re-introduce some limited edition pieces that spark some niche but influential interest down the line.
Regardless of how consumer sentiment sits today, one thing’s for sure in the world of fashion: everything can come back some day.