There's no misunderstanding the message that the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mark Jeffries, recently sent out: the brand delivers a certain "look" and wants to maintain it.
His comments about "fat people", being one of the "cool kids", and "thin, beautiful customers" have, for the most part, been seen as grossly offensive, and as a father of two teenagers, I myself wince.
But from a pure marketing perspective, I'm not sure that he was wrong. When you look at it without any emotion, you'll see that he is applying classic marketing techniques to his business.
A well-defined brand. By putting a stake in the ground, he is clearly defining what his brand stands for and what it offers. There's no doubt about that. Really good marketing means defining your brand so that there's no misunderstanding about what it does and what it offers consumers.
A well-defined target market. In addition to a clear brand definition, good marketing is all about identifying a distinct target market, one that is so well-defined, consumers know who you are talking to at all times. Jeffries has certainly done that.
Attention-grabbing publicity. Let's face it, Abercrombie as a brand is in decline if you believe all the trade press. Jeffries' statements are a classic stunt to get attention, and attention is exactly what he got. In this case, his target consumer probably loved the commentary, which I imagine is exactly his objective.
Given the context of his comments, it's hard for me to make these arguments. I am a marketing purist and it's also hard for me to say he's not doing good marketing. He's making decisions based on how he wants to manage his business and you can't fault him for that.
Don't get me wrong -- I am not an advocate for offending the public. The problem here is that Jeffries is playing into a huge societal issue that runs contrary to what he's proposing. No one is going to argue, from a public perception perspective, that you should be targeting along the lines of size, weight, personality or popularity. It just feels wrong.
Part of good marketing is being a good citizen. In fact, it's become a cost of entry as consumers demand to know where you stand and how you are giving back to the community. Positioning your brand contrary to public belief is a tricky move. It doesn't work for most people.
So how do you strike this balance of a perfect brand definition and solid consumer targeting while remaining in synch with pop culture?
I think the answer lies in understanding the consumer landscape and listening to the pulse of pop culture. While you have to listen to your consumers and what they want, you also have to see how that fits into the larger picture. If you know that your marketing is likely to offend, you should probably use channels that keep it private with your customers. One-to-one marketing as opposed to social media broadcasting might be a more appropriate choice.
Keep in mind that at the end of the day, the consumer decides. If Abercrombie & Fitch can find enough "cool kids" to partake in the brand, who can argue that they're wrong? But if public perception overrides, no amount of "good marketing" will save them.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Jim Joseph is the North American president of New York-based communications agency Cohn & Wolfe, part of the media company WPP Group PLC. He is the author of three books, including the latest, The Personal Experience Effect (Happy About 2013). Joseph also teaches marketing at New York University and blogs at JimJosephExp.com.