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The Perfect Social Media Storm

Abercrombie and Fitch the perfect social media storm

Authors: Pam Knight and Martin House

It’s amazing how the lessons of marketing history still fail to be learnt – story behind Abercrombie and Fitch

For those of us who have been around a little while we couldn’t fail to remember the classic words of Gerald Ratner in 1991, when he described his incredibly popular jewellery range as “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably won’t last as long”.

Previously loyal customers, humiliated by the association exacted revenge by staying away from Ratner shops and causing the company irreparable damage.

In 2013 we saw a similar faux par by aspirational brand Abercrombie and Fitch with what promised to be similar results but with the added complexity of free social media to contend with.

So what actually unfolded here?

An aspirational marketing plan typically involves three discreet steps:

  1. identifying your intended market,
  2. establishing an idealised social group that you are happy to promote your product,
  3. and establish your product as the key to entry to this group.


You can tell an aspiration campaign:

[i] by the way the advertising separates the world into two camps: The desirable “haves” from the undesirable “have nots”.
There are many excellent examples of this today; Mac versus PC is a good one where the Mac is always the super cool brother to the geek PC.
Buy a Mac.

Many car campaigns play on the aspirational lifestyle choices

and the world of fashion has to be the king within this market place

. .until now…

What happens when it all goes wrong?

Aspirational marketing only works if you can suspend your natural resistance to being told what to do and this is where Abercrombie & Fitch’s campaign broke down. It appears that they accidentally let the cat out of the bag – they broke the two sacred rules – don’t tell your target audience that they are your target – and don’t tell the others that they don’t make the grade!

The psychology behind this is not rocket science but it is well documented and based on the work of Abraham Maslow[ii].

When the CEO of A & F drew attention to the ‘ideal target audience’ he took a risk, when he went on to tell the ‘outside of market audience’ just why they were not suitable, he alienated a good many people who sit within both camps.

Quote: ““In every school there are the cool kids and not so cool kids. We go after the cool kids”.

What actually caused this reaction?

Anyone who followed this story on social media could not have failed to have noticed how people divided into two camps and how they reacted to one another.

Social media can be anonymous – you sit within a little world-wide bubble which gives you the freedom to behave completely differently from your ‘norm’ – a bit like road rage; to gesticulate and shout from afar feels safe.

In addition to that, social media allows human group psyche to take over in a way Mr Ratner was lucky enough to miss. The need to belong,[iii] the very same psychological mechanism that A & F were playing with to build brand loyalty (tribe), is also responsible for the ferocity of reaction we feel when our ‘tribes’ are attacked. With this strongly developed sense of belonging to the forefront it is hardly surprising that when we feel betrayed we react so strongly. Guilt moves in when we realise we have aligned ourselves against something we don’t really feel comfortable with.

By using our feelings of guilt[iv] we can turn the problem away from ourselves and disassociate ourselves from the outcomes. By being cross and turning against the betrayer we are able to switch sides and see the very key to joining the group as the barrier against entry.

Here is where it gets really interesting because instinct takes over, rational thought is lost and the chemical that makes us feel good about belonging (oxytocin[v]) also happens to be the chemical that makes us territorial and defensive[vi] and the ‘don’t get between a mother and her cub’ scenario kicks in.

And it doesn’t end there, Computer Aided Tomography studies (CAT brain scans to you and I) have shown that people actually enjoy punishing social transgression[vii], now put them in front of a computer and the free world of social media and what have you created? A perfect storm for A & F.

So, did the reply by A & F’s CEO Mike on Facebook address the feelings he created?

“I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.“ [viii]

We leave you to decide maybe after reading their website today….

… this is Abercrombie and Fitch’s website today – all about inclusivity, diversity and a sense of belonging…

Lessons learned?


Martin House is the Director and Owner of Social Media Analysis Ltd, helping companies profit from Social Media by understanding how it works, or why it doesn’t work for you.

Pam Knight is Director and founder of White Knight Marketing Ltd and specialises in marketing strategy and good old fashioned common sense!

[i] Anyone considering an aspirational campaign should seek professional advice before starting.  Whilst building huge brand loyalty they can severely damage your reputation when incorrectly handled.

[ii]Maslow identified the need for esteem in his  hierarchy of needs  – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs#Esteem

[iii]Belongingness – The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7777651

[iv]Freud – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection

[v]Oxytocin – http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/oxytocin

[vi]Biological aspects of social bonding and the roots of human violence. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15817733

[vii]The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment – http://www.sciencemag.org/content/305/5688/1254.abstract

[viii]Copied from the A & F Facebook page for research purposes: https://www.facebook.com/abercrombie

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