It’s a timeless marketing proverb, “If you try to be something to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to anyone.” This statement has endured because it is more or less true.
I hold that marketing is essentially appealing to someone’s sense of self. The purchases we make are exercises in narcissism. We “dress up” in our brand choices to tell people who we think we are.
If a brand decides its target is “Males, 18-34 with a household income of $75K+, who are into sports and cars”, they’re basically saying we’re appealing to everyone who thinks of themselves in these generic terms. And of course, no one thinks of themselves that way which is why those broad marketing strategies usually happen in parity categories that compete on couponing, discounting or various forms of market bribery to make their sales quotas.
The brands that stand for something and consider themselves “lifestyle brands” – almost exclusively these brands have a clear, narrowly defined target audience that is more about world views than demographic data points. And appealing to those world views, at the exclusion of others, is how they build a loyal tribe of customers.
Sometimes though, this lifestyle marketing and narrow focus can come off a bit distastefully when it’s spelled out bluntly. Check out this article and interview with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch – one of America’s favorite near-soft-porn teen apparel brands. (Sorry, that was my inner parent characterizing it there.)
As a father of daughters, what he’s saying is offensive, elitist and about as insensitive as one can get. It’s also dangerous to young minds and arguably irresponsible from a social standpoint. His are exactly the sentiments that contribute to bullying, self-esteem issues, and eating disorders. Disgusting, really.
As a marketer though, I recognize what he’s doing and why its working. He’s very candid about his brand, his target and what he’s going after. As CEO, he is clearing establishing the vision, mission and values of his company. Which is exactly the charge of CEOs.
I’m sure more than a few Abercrombie wearers are outside his desired caste of ‘cool kids’ but he is successfully targeting a specific mindset and doing it consistently, right down to the sizes of the products he offers and the (hellish to parents, heavenly to teens) dark stores with their horribly pervasive scents, thunderous house music and barely-clad poster models.
My wife went into Abercrombie for my daughter once, looking for shorts. She emerged ten minutes later, daughter in tow, after unsuccessfully asking the salesman (a boy, really) if they had anything in stock that wasn’t “tart-y”. Nope. All their shorts were short-shorts. Next stop, Gap.
Do I want my daughter wearing Abercrombie after seeing reading this article? Absolutely not. Do I plan to reinforce in my daughter a healthy sense of body and modesty about that body? Absolutely. Will I continually remind her that people come in many shapes and sizes and that while I advocate building a strong mind in a strong body (“Mens sana in corpore sano” being a personal motto of mine) it is not right to judge people purely because they don’t fit our ideals. I will try to bestow those values on her. I will in effect be fighting Abercrombie’s marketing.
But I’m not the target audience (and I’ll be damned if my daughter will be, either). Abercrombie is intentionally excluding the likes of me. They don’t want me. They don’t share my values. They are appealing to a wholly different target. One who subscribes to their vision and values. And while it may sadden me that such a market exists, and in such great numbers, the Abercrombie message works because of its elitism.