What Abercrombie & Fitch got wrong about niche marketing — and what it got right

Abercrombie & Fitch recently came under fire for a story that came out alleging the clothing retailer refuses to make clothing for large women. And while Abercrombie’s sizing choices — and this scandal — are not as outrageous as they might first seem, they do provide some fundamental lessons for niche marketers looking to expand their brand.

In a Business Insider article, author Ashley Lutz revealed Abercrombie doesn’t sell XL or XXL sizes in their women’s clothing lines. The plus-sized niche is diminishing, she says, because more mainstream retailers are adding larger sizes to their offerings.

Excluding potential customers

Most of the controversy stems from a 2006 interview Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries gave to Salon where he talked about the sex appeal of his company’s brand:

Mike Jeffries faces fresh scrutiny for comments made during a 2006 interview (source)

Mike Jeffries faces fresh scrutiny for comments made during a 2006 interview (source)

“It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that,”

On its surface, it doesn’t sound like the worst marketing strategy. Identify the customers you hope to attract, increase the ways they identify with your brand (and their own vanity), and you’ll boost customer loyalty.

The problem comes from how Jeffries was dismissive — and insulting — to scores of potential customers, which could lead to blowback from his core customer base. Abercrombie’s brand is based around being cool. If “cool” celebrities and internet users suddenly decide Abercrombie took its brand identity too far, it could be devastating for business.

Niche marketing isn’t about excluding customers from your brand. It’s about identifying who is most likely to buy — and stay loyal — to your product or service, then spending a majority of your resources targeting that audience and trying to increase the number of buyers who fall into that category.

Abercrombie has says it only wants "cool" people shopping at its stores (source)

Abercrombie has says it only wants “cool” people shopping at its stores (source)

Sending just the right message

But others argue Abercrombie hasn’t made much of a blunder at all. Abercrombie never intended to target plus-sized shoppers, and Jeffries comments only bluntly reinforce the idea that “cool” shoppers belong in the stores.

Still, the brands inability to control the message, and its backlash, probably caused the company to sweat a bit.

A different story

But as with most internet scandals, the truth is a little more complicated than the tweets and YouTube reaction videos claim. In fact, it wasn’t Jeffries who made the most villainous comments in the Business Insider story. Instead, it was an industry consultant who interpreted Jeffries quotes from almost 10 years ago.

As Zac Bissonnette points out, the company has made no recent changes to its sizes and hasn’t commented on its sizes publicly. What’s more, its sizing options are much different than many high-end retailers.

In truth, Abercrombie couldn’t have done much — outside of turning down all interview requests — to avoid this blowback. Since the scandal, the company has stayed pretty quiet, pretty much waiting for it all to blow over. Which may be exactly the right response.

If you would like to find out more about defining your niche

I invite you to contact me. I have been helping professional service providers such as CPAs, attorneys, and financial services providers focus their business development efforts on profitable micro-niches for over 10 years. Email me at david@themirconichemethod.com.

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