Founded in 1892, Abercrombie & Fitch is one of the most iconic American clothing brands of all time. The brand once oozed coolness and was nothing short of a teen icon — reaching its "cultural zenith" in 1999 when pop band LFO released their hit “Summer girls”, with the infamous line “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch”.
However, the brand’s popularity has been overshadowed by various scandals over the years, including racist T-shirts, illegal hiring (and firing) practices, and discriminatory comments by the brand’s then-CEO. Now, Abercrombie is trying to put all that behind them and market itself as an inclusive, authentic brand for modern Millennial consumers.
But has it worked? Read on to learn about the rise, fall, and rehabilitation of the iconic Abercrombie brand.
The Beginnings of the Abercrombie Brand
Abercrombie & Fitch started off as an outdoor equipment store in New York City, founded by David T. Abercrombie, serving elite sportsmen and celebrities like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.
In 1904, lawyer Ezra Fitch purchased a large share of the company and became a co-founder. A few years later, David Abercrombie left, and the company opened the first Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store.
The company had various financial ups and downs over the years, making a record $6.3 million in sales in 1929, slumping in the 1960s, and filing for bankruptcy in 1977. In the 1990s, a blonde, good-looking man from California named Mike Jeffries became CEO — which was a pivotal turning point for the brand in its journey to becoming a teen icon.
A Controversial Brand Strategy Based on “Coolness”
CEO Mike Jeffries was obsessively focused on appealing to teens. And not just any teens — the cool ones, exclusively.
In an interview from 2006, Mike Jeffries actually said:
"In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
The CEO went on to explain that the Abercrombie & Fitch brand was based on coolness, sex appeal, and excluding those who don’t fit their ideal. This even extended to their hiring practices, with the brand only allowing young, beautiful models to work in their stores, and refusing to hire anyone deemed not attractive enough.
It also refused to stock any items larger than a US size 10 (UK size 14).
Their marketing strategy was purely based on idealizing people considered attractive while excluding those who didn’t meet these standards. Mike Jeffries explained, “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.”
The Abercrombie logo and iconic moose were absolutely everywhere — adorning all of the brand’s sweaters, T-shirts, jeans, and tote bags. Visiting the store was a unique yet intimidating experience — the dimmed lighting and loud music were more reminiscent of a nightclub than a store, and every employee looked like (or actually was) a model.
Abercrombie’s strategy worked when the vision of a white, thin, all-American teen was the dominant image of culture. But the brand ran into trouble when it failed to evolve with the times and appeal to a modern, diverse customer base.
From Hero to Zero — and Maybe Back Again?
Shortly thereafter, the brand’s strategy completely unraveled and Abercrombie was named America's most hated retailer. The brand faced various scandals and lawsuits as its illegal and discriminatory practices came to light, and people began to ditch the brand in favor of fast-fashion rivals like H&M and Forever 21.
Jeffries retired as CEO in 2014, and the moose was removed from Abercrombie’s branding in the same year. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough to simply get rid of the moose and revamp the dark, nightclub-esque stores — the company needed to rethink its entire system of morals and values.
With the rise of the body-positivity movement and Gen-Z's preference for authenticity, the brand was suddenly no longer cool and was famously ripped apart in the devastating 2022 Netflix documentary, titled "White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch".
The brand has apologized for its actions, stating:
"While the problematic elements of that era have already been subject to wide and valid criticism over the years, we want to be clear that they are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now.”
While it might have seemed impossible, and it didn’t happen overnight, Abercrombie has managed to become “cool again”. Under the leadership of Fran Horowitz, who became CEO in 2017, Abercrombie’s sales and stark market value started to recover.
She brought in a more conscious approach to marketing which appealed to a more diverse group of consumers. In 2018, Business Insider called it the "biggest retail comeback of the year."
Abercrombie today is very different from how the brand used to be. The company needed to transform essentially every element of its branding — from its product range to the in-store experience to its marketing content. And, perhaps more importantly, its core values.
Abercrombie clothes now have a much more understated, looser-fitting look — without loud logos. The stores are bright and airy — with quiet music and without obscene amounts of fragrance spritzed around the store. Furthermore, the gratuitous posters of shirtless models are gone, and now, tasteful images of their clothing are displayed around the stores.
The brand also focuses on social media and works with diverse influencers of all backgrounds and sizes, fully embracing inclusion and diversity.
Lessons Learned from Abercrombie & Fitch
Abercrombie’s brand journey is essentially a masterclass in reinvention. Here are the key lessons for marketers.
1. Embrace inclusivity and diversity
Modern society is proudly diverse, and these days, customers care about accurate representation. A study by Deloitte showed that 57% of consumers are more loyal to brands that commit to addressing social inequality in their actions and those aged 18 to 25 years old took greater notice of inclusive advertising when making purchase decisions.
Abercrombie now understands the need for inclusive advertising campaigns and content. On their website, the brand says, “Abercrombie isn't a brand where you need to fit in—it's one where everyone truly belongs.”
The brand uses the hashtag #abercrombietoday to highlight that they are a modern, inclusive brand that welcomes diversity. A quick glimpse at the brand’s Instagram page shows that the brand collaborates with influencers of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds to ensure all customers feel welcome.
The brand’s fresh new approach to diversity has resonated with customers, with one Instagram user commenting, “It’s so incredible to see this brand change. I remember buying Abercrombie and NEVER seeing representation, many years later finally!”
2. Be honest if you mess up
If you make a mistake or your company messes up, it’s best to just be honest, come clean, and take thoughtful actions to move forward with purpose. In today’s cancel culture, there’s no point trying to cover up or talk your way out of unsustainable, unethical, or unlawful business practices.
Abercrombie has been honest about the journey it’s made. They admit that how they acted in the past does not reflect their current brand identity. In a statement on Instagram, the brand shared the actions it has taken to put things right and thanked its customers for their loyalty and support over the years as the brand has evolved.
Millennials and Gen Z place a high value on authenticity, and customers of all ages appreciate honesty — so this approach makes sense.
3. Adapt with the times
Abercrombie has been around since 1892. You only need to watch a TV series from the 90s to realize how significantly culture has changed over the past few decades. A joke that was funny then is suddenly not so amusing — and may actually be considered offensive now. So for marketers, it’s crucial to review your brand message and value proposition regularly.
The brands with the best longevity tend to reinvent themselves every few years. This isn’t restricted to fashion brands — tech giant IBM has also drastically reinvented itself every few years.
Remember: People’s needs and interests develop, so your brand and product need to keep up — or risk becoming the next Nokia.
4. Be crystal clear on your brand values
Abercrombie shows how important it is to know who you are as a brand and what you stand for.
Their strong brand identity was how they made a name for themselves in the first place. Now, the brand has chosen a much different route to find success. It’s still aspirational — but in a more authentic way, which resonates more so with modern Millennials.
At the end of the day, every action your brand takes has to fall in line with its core values. To stray from them is to invite criticism and risk consumer trust.
Abercrombie & Fitch has a truly unique brand heritage. Few companies have undergone so many transformations and are still standing today: from its origins as an outdoor and hunting story in 1892, to one of the most iconic teen brands of the 1990s and early 2000s, to a modern, authentic apparel brand in 2022.
Abercrombie provides a valuable lesson for marketers on the importance of authenticity and diversity — and how integral both of these concepts are for brands’ success in 2022 and beyond.