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Has Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO Really Made a 'Big, Fat, Marketing Mistake'?

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Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO, Mike Jeffries, is currently under fire about his comments on excluding people who don't fit with the brand. For those of you who missed them, made back in 2006, his comments were: "we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." The brand now reinforces this through its sizing policy, with a maximum of women's size 10, and men's 34. This latest development hasn't made him any friends, but is this really a 'Big, Fat, Marketing mistake' (Fox News), or brand management in action?

At an APG conference this week, John Hegarty reminded us that strong brands act as filters. They don't try to be all things to all people. They stand for something, and that strong positioning means attracting some people, and excluding some as well.

In communications, we constantly use the brand as a filter for outbound messages. Creative is filtered through brand fit, including the kind of people the brand wants to speak to - our target audience. We usually frame this audience in terms of who we want to speak to, but it also narrows our focus and excludes those we don't. Generally, this filtering is considered a pretty good thing - it gives clients more efficient spend and means that consumers see things that are more relevant for them.

It would be easy to conclude that it was inbound filtering - controlling the kind of people who buy the brand - that causes controversy. And yet we control who uses the brand all the time: we nudge through product design (e.g. moisturiser in a grey packet is for men); and exclude through pricing strategies (e.g. Bentley is for rich people). Most of the time, these strategies don't cause any raised eyebrows. In fact targeting is typically only noteworthy when these strategies don't work: think Burberry's chav years and Stella's 'wife beater' reputation.

I don't think this is about the principle of being exclusionary, but whether people feel excluded. Customers need to feel that their purchase behaviour represents a personal choice, that they're excluding you. You might price that dress at £3,000 to exclude me, but as a customer, I need to believe that I choose not to pay that price. How many times have you heard someone say "even if I won the lottery, I couldn't bring myself to spend £XK on a car"?

Filters work both ways: we filter people based on whether they fit with the brand and consumers filter brands to see if they fit with the kind of person they are. Clever marketing positions the brand so that the filtering process is mutually beneficial: we're the right kind of brand for the right kind of person. The key is that the customer feels that they're the one in control of that choice. Telling customers that they can't join your club because they're too fat isn't generally the best way to do that.

But in branding, what's generally best isn't always best (and vice versa). A&F's target audience are the cool kids at school, primarily teenagers. If Mean Girls is to be believed, this cool clique are thin, attractive, and prepared to protect their position - even if that means picking on the fat kids. It sounds like A&F's positioning as a cliquey brand who like to exclude others (especially the bigger boned) will be just great for that group's filters. I suspect there aren't many thin, attractive teenagers protesting against his comments.

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