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Has Abercrombie & Fitch’s rebrand paid dividends?

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The company undertook a massive rebrand earlier this year

After a well-publicized fall from grace, this past quarter was the first test for clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch’s new, irreverent rebrand, which was primarily piloted on social media.

Abercrombie heralded its new brand identity with a complete deletion of all content on Instagram in October, replacing it with messages cloaked in the retailer’s new bright red color scheme. The verdict is still out on whether This is Abercrombie & Fitch resonated with consumers, but, depending on whom you ask, the pivot is either the beginning of a new presence, a desperate grab at attention, or, at the least, an admission of an aging brand and business model. 

“While there are plenty of re-branding success stories, there are few that Abercrombie can follow as a roadmap,” said James McNally, director of digital strategy at TDT, New York.  “KFC has done a good job of re-aligning with consumer values, Apple evolved impressively, Nokia was a rubber boot maker at one point - but these are fundamentally different businesses. 

“Those are companies that evolved their product to be more relevant, which Abercrombie certainly has done with recent collections,” he said. “But in the clothing business, brands are more closely tied to their brand image than in other industries.  

“Abercrombie spent decades creating a juggernaut of a brand image, and unfortunately that brand image now carries a lot of toxicity.  Re-branding for A&F is less a question of tweaking the product (the brand has already shown it can do that) and more about writing an entirely new brand narrative.  A brand like Kodak reinvents by re-tooling it's production mechanisms and product; a brand like Abercrombie needs to do the same—and it needs to do a lot of soul-searching.”

This is Abercrombie & Fitch
The shift from a subdued navy to loud red color scheme also came with a much louder advertising campaign that accompanied the rebrand, which swapped the retailer’s signature black and white tones for full color. 

One video begins with a placard featuring the phrase, “People have a lot to say about us. They think they've got us figured out,” intercut with footage of Abercrombie’s models, spliced in between campaign slogans such as, “It’s time for a fresh start,” and “We’re wiping the slate clean.”

The campaign is explicit about its desire to put the past behind it, a past which includes severely atrophying sales numbers in recent years and media controversy former-CEO Mike Jeffries attracted after making comments on the kinds of people he’d like to exclude from wearing Abercrombie’s clothes. 

Mr. Jeffries has also been accused of helming an expansion plan that was far too aggressive, despite having nothing but weak financial outlook to justify it. 


Perhaps even, worse, the retailer has picked up the pejorative “mall brand” title from consumers that increasingly look to shop online and on their mobile devices. The cohesive omnichannel approach that is a near-ubiquitous prototype for successful commerce models is still foreign to Abercrombie, even after a widely publicized Web site reformatting that was rolled out in conjunction with the rebrand. 

Looking at the numbers coming back from Q3, it is possible consumers’ memories are not as short as Abercrombie’s. While its Hollister brand made incremental improvements, the subject of the rebrand, Abercrombie’s mainline, continued to struggle. 

Expect Abercrombie’s struggles to continue until it finds a way to market to today’s teens, who are more enamored with streetwear-inspired fashions than the teens of ten years ago, who too have moved on, they to a more professional wardrobe. 
“Analysts can debate how much of Abercrombie's struggle is due to retail logistics (challenging exchange rates, less consumer excitement around flagship stores, mall fatigue) and how much is due to negative brand connotations resulting from a brand image that's been poorly managed over decades,” Mr. McNally said. “Ultimately, brands that want to combine global scale and a ‘fashion’ identity need to balance a very tricky set of qualitative and quantitative variables. 

“Running a huge retail business like Abercrombie is a incredibly challenging from a logistics and numbers perspective, but, even if you're acing that side of the business, you still need to carefully maintain, shape, and evolve your brand identity—there are two fronts in Abercrombie's battle, and failing on either means failing entirely.”

Huge pivot
The Nasdaq recently released a report summing up Abercrombie’s year, and its prospects do not look good. While waiting for numbers from the company’s first post-rebrand holiday season, the brass at Abercrombie can take solace in one positive the Nasdaq noted: its investments in the mobile market are beginning to pay off, with a near 50 percent jump in sales from orders placed on mobile.


“How important is the rebrand? It comes down to who controls the company and what their goals are,” Mr. McNally said. “If leadership deeply believes that Abercrombie can experience a lasting revival in the US and abroad, then obviously the solving the brand image problem is mission critical. 

“If leadership simply wants to squeeze all the remaining value out of the brand with a short term saturation blitz on foreign markets (such as through the partnership with Zalando, Europe's biggest online fashion platform), then by all means it can count on it's existing momentum to keep up some sales. Abercrombie may be headed to a near-extinction in the coming years, but long-term that could be a blessing in disguise—maybe in 10-15 years, after all the Abercrombie mall stores are long shuttered, some small company will revive Abercrombie as a heritage brand, riffing on its 1990's heyday.”

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Rakin Azfar is editorial assistant on Mobile Marketer, New York. Reach him at rakin@napean.com.

 
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