The Blog

Why the Personality of the CEO Has Never Been So Important for Brands

Abercrombie & Fitch has never made me feel good. I've always left the store feeling a) robbed of money b) cold (the fabric is thin), fat (it's hard not to), and also angry in general that I'd succumbed to the societal pressures of attempting to prove I am living a certain lifestyle.

There is something seriously wrong with the world when brands are openly out to get you. Marketing itself has often been slated, most famously by Bill Hicks who openly ranted that marketing types "are filling the world with violent garbage and should probably kill themselves". Marketing is about promoting and selling products, but not at the expense of the brand. Do it wrong, and you kill your brand and reputation.

I work in marketing and I believe that there is a lot of good ethical work to be done and is being done. But brands (or should I say CEO's) that openly hate their customers? This gives the others a bad name. How can a candid hatred of customers be justified in an ever increasing world of transparency and why do we so often feel that we should just shrug it off?

As savvy customers with knowledge at our fingertips and an eye kept firmly on our bank balance, I believe it's more important than ever before to take the power back into our own hands (and wallets).

So, brands such as Ryanair immediately spring to mind as a reminder that we need to stand up for our customer rights. With a CEO who quite openly and candidly admits he doesn't really care about his customers, he laughs in the face of poor unsuspecting victims, who are quite rightly wanting to get their hands on the top discount rates in order to get a bit more out of their holiday. Micheline Maynard summed this up in her Forbes article:

"[Ryanair] invented fees for virtually every aspect of an airplane flight, based on the idea that people will put up with just about anything if the fare is cheap enough."

Talking of companies who receive pleasure in watching their customers suffer, let's welcome Mike Jeffries, (the Abercrombie & Fitch CEO) into the ring. He is quite the headline-veteran having hogged the front pages seven years ago when quoted in an interview by The Salon in 2006 having made some outlandish remarks on his idealised 'target customer':

"Candidly, 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either."

So, seven years later, Jeffries is receiving backlash once again. But this time, angry customers are getting their own back. Namely, Los Angeles-based writer Greg Karber who has started the campaign called "Fitch the Homeless" and is one of the reasons I just love the Internet. I love it because it gives people a voice. It gives any angry teenager in their bedroom a chance to prove their worth and it also gives passionate entrepreneurs and campaigners the chance to break through the noise and say their piece. Jeffries wants 'cool, beautiful, funny' people wearing his clothes and this campaign is an attempt to do the exact opposite. It's what he would NOT have wanted for his brand, and although Jeffries might not take action, at least now he has no choice but to listen.

Anecdotally, I do not have good memories of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand. But, admittedly, I too, got well and truly sucked in. Having attended an all-girl's school, all this designer malarkey was one of the mainly rites of passage. It wasn't really anything to do with your intellectual thoughts at 16 years old, no: it was who knew the most about boys, and more importantly, who is wearing the latest badly designed garment with the iconic stitched on moose. If you managed to make it to London's flagship store (with the inability to hear, smell or see due to the excessive pumping of perfume and music to rival that of nightclub Fabric), then bravo, you have made it into the cool crowd. If you have successfully navigated your way through the stench and proven yourself to have bought into the Abercrombie lifestyle, then you pass the middle-class test of being lured into the world of designer clothes. One gold star for you.

I remember entering this monstrosity of a store back in 2007 when it first opened in London, dragging my poor unsuspecting parents (actually I recall my Dad refusing and waiting outside, terrified). My sister and I marched towards the new building and probably would have missed it (no branding, elusiveness being at the heart of the brand) if it wasn't for the huge queue flooding down Savile Row. Eager as beavers, we joined the mob of people, completely unfazed by the lengthy queue. After a long wait, we finally entered the store, greeted by a young man with the most intimidating abs I have ever encountered. Back then, the cultural norm was to have a photo taken with said intimidating-abs-man with a skinny brunette with hot pants (it was a wintery December afternoon I hasten to add) energetically in charge of the polaroid camera so that we could remember this momentous day forever. Uploading a picture of yourself onto Facebook in close proximity of an Abercrombie & Fitch model equated to posting a picture of your blinged up engagement finger - it was at the time, the most sought after social seal of approval.

Once inside the store (slash nightclub), it only got more awkward. The sizing is known to be small, which Jeffries openly admits because he doesn't want 'fat chicks wearing the clothes'. So to punish the fatties, the clothes are laid out with size XS perfectly within reach, these tiny sizes are spread out on centre tables for everyone to stroke and peruse. Upon inspection, it is immediately clear that these sizes are similar to that of my now six-year-old nephew. Sizes S to M are a little further up on the clothes shelves which requires a slight tip toe to reach. But, the L and XL? Right at the top of the cabinet, requiring a step ladder. Yes, if you want to get a XL (the equivalent of a Topshop 12) you have to actively seek a (ridiculously good-looking) sales assistant to get a ladder, climb up, reach for the garment and then climb back down, and then give it to you to try on. I called this the' Ladder of Shame'. Not only does the whole store know that you are getting an XL, but the shop assistant cannot even look you in the eye properly, tossing you the XL garment like a hot potato.

To conclude, Abercrombie & Fitch has never made me feel good. I've always left the store feeling a) robbed of money b) cold (the fabric is thin), fat (it's hard not to), and also angry in general that I'd succumbed to the societal pressures of attempting to prove I am living a certain lifestyle.

It cannot be a coincidence that the overarching reputation of the brand is synonymous with the likeability of the CEO. It cannot be a coincidence that a CEO with a bubbly personality such as Richard Branson, or an inspiring, intelligent CEO such as Steve Jobs helps create marketing messages that stick in the minds of consumers. Learning: being an arsehole has never worked out for anybody (except Piers Morgan).

So, Abercrombie, good luck with your future marketing endeavours. I, for one, can happily and officially say that I am OK with the fact that 'I don't belong'. And with that, I bid you adieu.