The brand that drew teen fans to its stores with shirtless male models, dim lights and heavy perfume is cleaning up its image amid a sharp drop in sales.
With a new marketing campaign, and a redesigned logo and website, set to launch Thursday, Abercrombie hopes millennials who knew the brand in high school will give it another chance.
“We are a positive, inclusive brand, with a nice sensibility, very different from what they encountered in the past,” says Fran Horowitz, president and chief merchandising officer at Abercrombie Fitch Co., which includes Hollister and abercrombie kids.
Big changes have been happening in the teen apparel market. What was cool in Abercrombie’s heyday is decidedly out of fashion now. Today’s teens embrace diversity and reject anything that resembles bullying. Clothing brands are racing to catch up to their shoppers.
Hollister, also owned by Abercrombie but targeting a younger audience, has seen some traction with an antibullying campaign launched in 2013. Its videos, with tips on how to prevent and address bullying, have been shared with thousands of high schools and posted on YouTube.
American Eagle Outfitters, AEO -0.64 % mall neighbor and rival to Abercrombie and Hollister, has been using an inclusive approach since 2014. The Pittsburgh-based retailer’s Aerie intimates and loungewear division stopped retouching models’ photographs and cast Iskra Lawrence, a fashion model with curves. American Eagle’s marketing campaign for fall and holiday has the hashtag #WeAllCan. “Let your style express the realest, most authentic version of yourself,” its website reads. Same-store sales rose 7% last year.
“You feel more accepted when you walk into their store or look at their website,” says Christine Hachem, a freshman at Emerson College, about American Eagle.
The 18-year-old self-described “avid shopper” says she doesn’t get that same sense at Abercrombie. “If you look at their website or posters, it’s always beautiful people, like perfectly Photoshopped people,” she says. Ms. Hachem is petite and says she doesn’t have a problem finding something that fits at Abercrombie but is aware that others do. “If you’re not tiny, it’s not the place to shop, which is not a good thing in my view,” she says, although she still sometimes shops there.
Abercrombie’s reputation dates back to the days of its former CEO Mike Jeffries, who from 1992 to 2014 transformed the brand from an old-fashioned outdoor retailer to an oversexed powerhouse, where shoppers readily paid a premium for logo T-shirts and low-cut jeans. The New Albany, Ohio-based retailer raised eyebrows with a publication called “AF Quarterly,” featuring photos of topless and nude-but-strategically-positioned models.
The philosophy grew stale, though, as brands like Forever 21 and HM HMB 2.38 % started shaking up the shopping mall with better and cheaper options. Abercrombie’s total sales of $3.5 billion last year were about $1 billion less than its sales peak of $4.5 billion in 2012, or roughly 22% less.
Rebranding began in August 2014, when Abercrombie started phasing out its once-coveted logo. Nine months later, it said it would end hiring policies based on looks and rid stores, gifts cards and shopping bags of “sexualized marketing.”
Now, like a teen culling her Instagram posts after a breakup, Abercrombie is deleting all existing pictures on its website and social-media channels. It’s a dramatic break with the past for a brand with more than 3 million Instagram followers and nearly 9 million page “likes” on Facebook.
New pictures will feature brighter lighting, looser styling and a more optimistic mood, says Ashley Sargent Price, the company’s new creative director of marketing across all brands, who came to the retailer from J. Crew.
Abercrombie is checking Instagram accounts in its model-selection process. “We’re casting based on personality and character,” Ms. Sargent Price says. “We’re able to really get a sense of these people’s personalities and their spirit through their personal photography.”
The new marketing campaign will be released in two parts: A text-only “teaser” phase starting next week will feature digital spots, and billboard and transit ads in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. “People have a lot to say about us. They think they’ve got us figured out,” the teaser ad will read. The second phase three weeks later will include its new photos and declare, “This is Abercrombie Fitch.”
Abercrombie plans a new store prototype for 2017; meanwhile, it’s making changes at existing locations. “We’ve turned the lights up, we’ve turned the scent down,” says Ms. Horowitz. The distinctive fragrance is still detectable from outside the store. That’s because it’s a “significant business,” Ms. Horowitz said, and “an important piece of the brand.”
Shoppers can expect more variety within the brand’s jeans, jackets and sweaters, says Stacia Andersen, the new brand president for Abercrombie and abercrombie kids, who arrived this year from Target. A burgundy lace dress caught the eye of Christina Davis Patel, a 29-year-old software marketing manager in San Francisco. She says she used to shop at Abercrombie because of the “status” it represented but came to see it as “just another brand.”
While on vacation last month, she wandered into an Abercrombie store and liked the $78 dress so much she bought it. When she posted a picture to Instagram of herself wearing the dress, a commenter chimed in: “Can’t believe that dress is Abercrombie! Crazy!”
“Right?!” Ms. Davis Patel responded. “I was in awe!”
“There is that sentimental factor,” she said later. “They used to be the cool kids’ brand.”