Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Monday, January 28, 2008


Once renowned for supplying the rich and famous of America with outdoor gear, Abercrombie & Fitch (A & F) went bankrupt in the 1970s and was reinvented in the late 1980s as an apparel retailer for college-age teens and young adults. After going public in 1996, the company began to focus on marketing itself as a lifestyle brand, selling a freewheeling collegiate image more than engaging in any sustained pitches about product quality. With the help of Sam Shahid and Bruce Weber, the creative director and photographer who had together created such sexually explicit ad campaigns as those on behalf of Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance in the 1980s, A & F in 1997 launched a hybrid of consumer magazine and product catalog—an increasingly popular marketing tool commonly called a ‘‘magalog’’—that became the focus of its branded advertising for the next six years. The ‘‘A & F Quarterly,’’ as the publication was called, leaned heavily on magazine-like editorial features and art photography, with much less emphasis on traditional catalog fare like product specifications and pictures in which the clothing was central. In keeping with Weber’s past work, the photos were notable for their focus on male bodies and for an open attitude toward sexuality in general. Many of the features in the magazine were controversial, including one encouraging the consumption of alcohol and another focusing on group sex. Though the magalog aimed to showcase the college lifestyle in a way that appealed to A & F’s target market, many believed that it had the simultaneous goal of intentionally inciting controversy.
When the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ was discontinued in 2003, opinions were mixed as to its effectiveness as a marketing tool. There was little argument about the fact that it had raised the brand’s profile immeasurably, but A & F sales had been consistently underwhelming since 2000. Some commentators observed that the company had reached a point beyond which further escalation of the magalog’s shock value would become virtually impossible, and the company’s future marketing course was uncertain. Nevertheless, the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ was a groundbreaking entry in the emerging magalog field.

Abercrombie & Fitch began life as a lower-Manhattanbased purveyor of high-quality hunting, fishing, and camping gear, and in the early twentieth century the store developed a loyal customer base among wealthy outdoors enthusiasts, including numerous famous Americans. Teddy Roosevelt visited the store to prepare for his numerous big-game expeditions, and every subsequent president through Gerald Ford was said to have been an Abercrombie & Fitch patron. Aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were notable Abercrombie & Fitch customers, as were screen stars Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Clark Gable. The author Ernest Hemingway regularly bought gear and guns from Abercrombie & Fitch, including the shotgun he used to commit suicide.
By the late 1960s Abercrombie & Fitch had expanded substantially, with stores across the United States, but the company’s fortunes nevertheless declined through the late 1970s, when it went bankrupt and was purchased by the sporting goods chain Oshman’s. Abercrombie & Fitch fared little better under its new corporate parent, and in 1988 it was sold again, this time to The Limited, Inc. (later called Limited Brands). The Limited, Inc., had experienced success with concept-store startups including the women’s clothing retailers The Limited and Express as well as the lingerie emporium Victoria’s Secret. During the 1990s Abercrombie & Fitch’s image was drastically recast. Though still retaining hints of its rugged outfitter’s roots, the company became a maker of high-end casual wear for teens and college students. Abercrombie & Fitch went public in 1996, and The Limited divested itself of equity in the company. Abercrombie & Fitch marketing was helmed inhouse by Sam Shahid, the company’s creative director as well as the president and creative director of his own agency, Shahid & Co., which represented other fashion brands as well. In preparing for the introduction of ‘‘A & F Quarterly,’’ Shahid enlisted the photographer Bruce Weber, whose arty fashion photographs were well known for their sensuality. Shahid, creative director for Calvin Klein in the 1980s, had worked with Weber on the famously controversial sexual images in ads for such products as Obsession cologne.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s official target market from the late 1990s onward was no secret. Chairman and CEO Michael S. Jeffries told the Wall Street Journal, ‘‘We’re a life-style brand, projecting inside the store and outside the store the life style of a very specific customer, the 18-to-22-year-old American college student.’’ Though these young people were undoubtedly the brand’s core loyalists, some critics believed that the company was also intentionally targeting younger teens with the consistently controversial images and editorial content in ‘‘A & F Quarterly.’’ Abercrombie & Fitch (A & F) acknowledged that younger teens had been won over to the brand but argued that this was a function of kids’ desire to emulate elder siblings and other trendsetters. After numerous complaints that young teens were purchasing the magalog, A & F established a policy requiring identification upon its purchase.
A & F was in the business of selling casual clothes often described as having a preppy or fraternity-house look, but its marketing focused less on the clothes themselves than on a brand personality. This personality was built on celebratory and irreverent evocations of the college lifestyle, including an emphasis on freewheeling behavior, alcohol consumption, and especially on sexually suggestive images. Though many provocative images of women appeared, the preponderance of nearly nude men in the magalog, many of whom were pictured in groups, led to widespread observations that the publication was homoerotic. Though A & F built a following among gay men during this time, the company denied that it was intentionally marketing to gays. In response to charges that the magalog objectified the male body, campaign creator Sam Shahid told the Wall Street Journal, ‘‘Fine. Let them complain. Gays love it; straights love it; girls love it . . . It’s in the eye of the beholder.’’ Beginning with a 1998 installment said to encourage irresponsible drinking, individual issues of the magalog repeatedly courted controversy, as did A & F clothing products in the 2000s. The company denied the widespread belief that it intentionally sparked controversy even at the expense of seeming offensive, but conventional wisdom maintained that the cultivation of a spirit of rebelliousness verging on the offensive was a marketing tactic of particular usefulness among college students.

One of A & F’s chief competitors was the mammoth chain the Gap, which was long associated with basic casual apparel such as khakis, T-shirts, and jeans. After several years of slumping sales and an ill-conceived attempt to branch out into more ambitious fashion styles, the chain refocused its energy on its basic lines in 1998. This return to form was announced and driven by a $300 million marketing campaign. TV spots in the campaign showed young men and women in Gap khakis and shirts, dancing and riding skateboards against a soundtrack of energetic music. Gap sales began to rebound, supplementing gains in the parent company Gap Inc.’s other chains, which included Banana Republic and Old Navy.
American Eagle Outfitters was a more direct competitor, as it targeted virtually the same group of young people as A & F, and with markedly similar clothing. In fact, the resemblance was close enough that A & F filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in 1998, alleging that American Eagle had copied its styles. Though A & F was perceived as having more status among teens and college students, American Eagle clothing was less expensive. The competition between the two clothiers became especially intense during the bleak sales season following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the months leading up to Christmas 2001, A & F fought American Eagle with large-scale discounts and coupons, forcing American Eagle to discount even further (and forcing both companies to absorb heavy losses). The holiday 2001 season also saw American Eagle run its first TV commercials ever. Though less explicit than A & F’s marketing, the American Eagle campaign similarly appealed to teen and young adult sexuality with scenes of young people dancing and kissing.

Though analysts contended that magalogs were not an efficient way of generating sales, A & F was able to build a signature environment with the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ and to rival the distribution numbers of successful mainstream magazines, thereby communicating its brand message in great depth to a loyal audience. Meanwhile, the provocative photographs and editorial content had the effect of consistently generating controversy. Far from hurting the company, these successive controversies added to the word-of-mouth buzz around the brand, which extended well beyond the magalogs’ distribution base. The ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ showed shots of merchandise for sale, but its primary focus was on images of attractive young men and women wearing minimal amounts of A & F apparel while engaged in suggestive recreational activities. There were also editorial features geared to the college lifestyle. Each issue focused on a seasonal range of activities in the college student’s life. The fall issue used variations on a back-to-school theme, whereas the winter issue featured holiday imagery and content, the spring issue focused logically on spring break, and the summer issue evoked summer vacation. The magalog initially sold for $5 a copy—the price was later increased to $6—with a yearly subscription fee of $12. At the height of its popularity the quarterly’s circulation was estimated at 220,000.
This format remained consistent throughout the six years that ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ was produced, but several issues were singled out by critics for their alleged objectionable content. The fall 1998 issue was the first of these. Together with images of naked young people in a feature on campus ‘‘streaking’’ and tongue-in-cheek sexual advice in an article called ‘‘The Rules of Attraction,’’ A & F ran a piece called ‘‘Drinking 101,’’ which offered recipes for drinks such as the ‘‘Brain Hemorrhage’’ and advised its college-age audience (many of whom were not of legal drinking age) to ‘‘indulge in some creative drinking this semester.’’ Vocal complaints from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving led A & F to recall the unsold issues and physically excise the ‘‘Drinking 101’’ article. Once issues were returned to stores, A & F placed a responsible-drinking message on the magalog cover. The Christmas 1999 issue of the magalog incited further controversy. The cover featured a shirtless young man holding a teddy bear, his pubic hair exposed by the low waistline of his pants, and another image in the magalog showed Santa Claus on his knees in front of Mrs. Claus, who was wearing a leather bustier and brandishing a whip. The issue also included an interview with the pornographic-movie star Jenna Jameson and a photo of the actor and comedian Andy Dick standing naked on an urban street with a sign in front of his midsection reading, ‘‘Hot nuts.’’ Complaints from the Michigan attorney general about the Christmas issue further stoked the A & F buzz, and the company responded by placing a warning on the issue’s cover declaring that it was intended for mature audiences only. The year 1999 also saw A & F take its sensual imagery to cable TV with commercials focusing on college men’s wrestling teams.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, marketers in all sectors found themselves rethinking their advertising messages, and A & F’s irreverently sexual personality was not a good fit for the historical moment. The company canceled publication of the magalog’s winter 2001 issue. A significant evolution in the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ came with 2002’s summer issue, in which the company sold advertising space to other marketers looking to reach a college-age audience. Products advertised in that issue included SoBe beverages and the Sony Playstation 2 video-game system. In 2002 the magalog also came under fire for the lack of racial diversity among its models, many of whom had blond hair and blue eyes. This controversy dovetailed with the uproar over A & F T-shirts featuring text and images that were widely seen as promoting an offensive caricature of Asians. The Christmas 2003 issue, the cover of which touted ‘‘group sex and more,’’ was recalled after widespread protests, and a 60 Minutes report alleged that the company relegated its minority employees and others who did not fit the blond-haired, blue-eyed archetype to positions in back of the store rather than in more visible jobs. Meanwhile softening sales at A & F stores nationwide led investors to question the company’s relative neglect of advertising channels outside of the magalog. On December 9, 2003, the company announced that the Christmas issue then in circulation would be the last ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ to see publication.

Though Abercrombie & Fitch claimed that it did not intentionally incite controversy as a means of spurring sales, many industry observers took it for granted that this was the company’s overriding strategy for building its image. After crossing the line, in the opinion of numerous public-advocacy groups, with a 1998 ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ issue encouraging college students to drink creatively (and, accordingly, to excess), the company’s magalog (a cross between a magazine and a catalog) continued to push the bounds of decency with images that included exposed male pubic hair and that depicted Santa and Mrs. Claus in a scene of sadomasochistic sexual play. In 2002 the company’s provocation moved into new territory: it released a line of T-shirts featuring images of Asians along with text that many considered overtly racist. A & F apologized, as was its practice after inciting controversy, and it saw its stock price reach a yearly high. Later that year the company unveiled a line of thong underwear for girls aged 7 to 14 and then pulled the product a month later in the face of intense criticism, apologizing for any offense it had caused.

Between 1997 and 1999, while A & F expanded rapidly and posted double-digit sales growth in individual stores, the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ was praised as an innovative and effective marketing tool. As disappointing 1999 sales results began to emerge, however, many in the media began to question A & F’s marketing strategy. Sales figures in the years 2000–03 proved equally disappointing, and though these years corresponded with a dramatically slumping American economy, analysts also criticized A & F’s approach to marketing. Richard E. Jaffe, a retail analyst with the firm UBS, told the New York Times that ‘‘the magalog was effective at raising visibility’’ but that ‘‘in terms of its racy content, it became harder and harder to outdo themselves, to provoke, to generate a reaction and create the excitement of the past.’’ At the time of the discontinuation of ‘‘A & F Quarterly,’’ A & F had seen declines in its key sales measurement—sales at stores open at least a year—for 39 of the preceding 46 months. Despite these criticisms, the ‘‘A & F Quarterly’’ was indisputably one of the most talked-about print campaigns of its time, and it was roundly acknowledged as an influential pioneer in the growing magalog movement.

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