Abercrombie & Fitch leverages TikTok to stage its comeback
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Long before pictures of models with washboard abs adorned the front of Abercrombie stores in malls across America, Abercrombie & Fitch started as a retailer selling outdoor gear and equipment in New York City.
For a serious dive into the history and timeline of the brand, head over to Abercrombie & Fitch’s approach to marketing: then and now; but first, let’s back up the reason why we’re even talking about this brand.
At one point, it looked like Abercrombie was as good as gone.
From reports about discrimination in hiring practices to the design of offensive apparel, from the early aughts well into the middle of the next decade Abercrombie was losing revenue and a huge customer base. Add in the decline of the shopping mall and it’s no surprise the brand hit a rough patch.
How has it managed to go from uncool to possibly cool again?
That Abercrombie Appeal
Learning about what made Abercrombie & Fitch so popular in the late ’90s, and early 2000s is sort of like diving into a time capsule.
A teenager’s favorite pastime (walking around the mall) often included a trip into (or around) the ever-elusive store. For those who ventured past the chiseled jaws and glistening six-packs of top models, there was the fragrance: Fierce.
Depending on who you ask, the scent was overwhelming.
As part of a scent marketing strategy, the retailer pumped the fragrance into stores and also sold it as its signature scent. You might say the strategy worked, as anyone who smells it is instantly drawn back to the mall, circa 2000.
Once inside the dim store, shoppers were welcomed with loud music and expensive clothing – much of which had the Abercrombie logo affixed. From super skinny t-shirts and super-low-rise jeans to polos and tiny skirts, the retailer appealed to the “cool, rich kids” – and that’s where some of the issues stemmed.
The average shopper had trouble finding anything in the store.
From clothing that ran smaller than average (the largest pant size for women was a 10) and the refusal to incorporate plus sizes to selling apparel with offensive depictions of stereotypes was the start of what went wrong with the retailer in the mid-2000s.
Rising, falling, and rising again?
Former CEO Mike Jeffries was known for wanting his store to be for ‘beautiful people.’
In an interview with Robin Lewis for Business Insider, he said he “doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.’”
Jeffries, in an interview with Salon, added that Abercrombie was built with sex appeal in mind. He said the store “hires good-looking people because good-looking people attract other good-looking people…we don’t market to anyone other than that.”
Stepping in as brand CEO in 1992, the store was in rough shape and it was Jeffries who turned his attention to tapping into a teenage market. At the time of his takeover, Abercrombie had 36 stores bringing in $50 million – by 1996, the retail arm had expanded to 125 stores, with $335 million in sales and a whopping $25 million in profits.
In 1998, Abercrombie launched a line for ages 7 to 14 – which, when compared to comments from the CEO, felt a little cringe.
However, through the rest of the decade, the demand for Abercrombie & Fitch went through the roof – enough that the subsidiary, Hollister, opened up in 2000. Despite looking similar, Hollister was geared toward the older teens, those between the ages of 14 to 18.
But, all that glitters is not gold.
In April 2002, the retailer found itself in hot water with customers and the Asian American community, in particular. Graphic t-shirts, which depicted stereotypes from Asian culture, were launched and within a matter of days, the public uproar got them pulled from store shelves.
The following year, the brand was served a class-action lawsuit for alleged discrimination.
The basis of the lawsuit claimed retail managers didn’t hire minority applicants because they didn’t fit the look the brand wanted. Abercrombie, not claiming any wrongdoing, settled the suit and paid $40 million dollars.
And remember that quote Jeffries had about hiring good-looking people?
It came back to haunt him in 2013 when yet another public outcry regarding the retailer’s decision to exclude larger size clothing caused him to make an indirect apology (and the brand started to incorporate larger sizing).
Throughout the 2010s and beyond, demand for Abercrombie & Fitch declined quarter after quarter.
Part of the diminished popularity was the constant spotlight of swirling allegations and lawsuits. Another part of it? Teenagers’ fashion tastes change, and the retailer didn’t adapt.
Instead, Abercrombie’s target market looked for more affordable options at nearby Forever 21. Teenagers also stopped going to shopping malls. From 2000 to 2014, there was a 30% drop in mall attendance by teens, according to Business Insider.
By 2014, Mike Jeffries was out as CEO and so were a lot of his marketing tactics. Shirtless male greeters? Out. Dim lights and loud music? Gone. Obnoxiously large logos on apparel? Sent to the clearance rack.
The target market for Abercrombie & Fitch shifted, too.
Instead of focusing so much on younger teens, the brand moved its attention to the young adult demographic (18 to 25). In 2017, new CEO Fran Horowitz started making moves to close underperforming stores and double down on stores that were doing well.
The new store aesthetic also started to match the new target market, too. Brighter and more boutique-styled (without the heavy fragrance permeating the air), the retailer started to see sales and trends moving back in a positive direction.
In a surprising turn of events, the retailer was named by Business Insider as the biggest retail comeback in 2018. To go even further, it ranked first place out of 55 Fortune 1000 companies in gender diversity, thanks in part to having a high percentage of women occupying corporate roles.
The changes didn’t stop there.
Up until 2020, the retailer continued to cut and restructure. New locations opened up utilizing a smaller footprint, while larger and underperforming stores closed. While the uptick and interest were once again paying off for the store, the next best thing happened to it:
Using TikTok to reach a new demographic
It’s no secret how much TikTok has changed the retail game.
From bringing attention to legacy brands and making them cool again (hello, Vaseline) TikTok has been a boon to brands who know how to use the platform and tap into various markets.
For Abercrombie & Fitch, that meant leaning into the power of TikTok to build brand awareness in its target market: Gen Z and millennials. For millennials, it might be playing a bit on the nostalgic factor.
On the other hand, Gen Z has mostly been exposed to Abercrombie & Fitch as a mall dinosaur.
Now, it seems like everyone’s talking about the brand again. From women in Pilates class donning sleek pieces from the activewear line to creators on TikTok (and Instagram) sharing about the latest essential pieces, even I have FOMO from seeing so many stylish and essential pieces in the retail collection.
And that’s exactly what Abercrombie & Fitch banked on, and it now boasts nearly 25 million TikTok followers, while the #abercrombie hashtag has more than 316 million views.
Instead of offering preppy or trending pieces that soon go to die on racks in an off-price retailer, the renewed focus on basics and inclusivity in sizing has played a major role in the resurgence of the retailer.
To make reach even better on TikTok (both through paid and organic ads), budgets were adjusted to accommodate talent and advertising. When it came to working with creators, the brand and respective agencies didn’t micromanage everything.
Instead, they gave creators a general map of where they wanted the strategy to go and let the creators run with it. By doubling down on what works and being able to pivot quickly, the marketing team at Abercrombie and Fitch infused new life into the brand.
Brands looking to change public perception or image will no doubt be turning to TikTok in hopes of replicating Abercrombie’s success.
Danielle Wiley, CEO of Sway Group, shared this with Digiday: “Brands are turning to TikTok to appeal to a different audience. It gives them the opportunity to change their image. If they were considered stuffy, their presence on the platform can change that perception and project a brand image that is more fun and youthful.”
And, while anything can happen with the brand in the future, for now, the glow-up is real.
If (like me) you remember Abercrombie & Fitch from the early 2000s you might be surprised to learn (like me) that the brand’s actually been around since 1892.