Nordstrom was the strongest performer among department stores in the first quarter.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. had a rough 2016. The company watched as its stock declined from a high of more than $32 to a low of just over $11. Why?

One reason may be that the company has done a poor job in managing its “TotalSocial” brand [TotalSocial is a proprietary metric developed by Fay’s firm, Engagement Labs]. Literally, they have not been able to manage how people talk about it either on or offline.

Retail and apparel brands are dependent on social influence, as it drives sales — and what consumers say about your brand is at the core of who you are. Whether it is conversations that are taking place off-line IRL (in real life) or online, these conversations are greatly influenced by what is being worn by those we admire and know personally. That’s why it’s fairly surprising to learn Abercrombie & Fitch, a brand that has undergone a major transformation in the last two years with a new lead designer and overhaul of its brand marketing campaign — has been floundering for a while, and has yet to figure out how to effectively manage its social marketing strategy.

According to a TotalSocial analysis, which looks at the full social impact of a marketing strategy, both online and off-line, Abercrombie & Fitch is performing well for off-line consumer conversations, but not at all well for social media. This is probably related to the social media ire A&F drew by stating its refusal to make merchandise for large women because the brand didn’t want overweight people wearing the clothing. That attitude didn’t fit with an Internet culture that celebrated warts-and-all acceptance of one’s flaws, and one that holds disdain for bullying.

Whatever the cause, the consumer influence mismatch this brand has between online and off-line performance represents a key opportunity — to turn the good conversations happening in real life into the social media world — and its story can be used as a canary in a coal mine for other retailers trying to serve a similar audience.

The below quadrant chart plots the retail landscape by levels and types of consumer conversations according to TotalSocial. The farther to the right and higher in the quadrant, the better the brand performs for overall consumer influence.


TotalSocial scores. 


The largest number of brands in the category is clustered in the lower right quadrant, performing well offline but not at all well online. Department stores such as Macy’s and Kohl’s are joined by specialty retailers like Old Navy, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch. The inconsistency between the brands’ online and offline performance represents an opportunity to move the positive conversations happening offline into the social media world.

Do Youth-Focused Retailers Harness the Power of Social Influence?

Overall, youth-oriented brands like H&M, Charlotte Russe and Hot Topic earn rather low scores for social engagement. Doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that brands aimed at the youth market aren’t leveraging the power of their target audience’s desire to share? There is a lot of room for improvement.

To improve social performance, the retail and apparel category as a whole can look closely at the two strongest performers in their own category — Nordstrom and Amazon.

Lessons From the Leaders

Nordstrom earns its success with phenomenally positive conversations, both online and off-line, and has succeeded in connecting with the influencers who give the most frequent and persuasive advice, both online and off-line. It is clear that Nordstrom thrives with the quality of its conversations.

On the other hand, mass online retailer Amazon achieves success with quantity. In fact, about 170 million times every week, somebody is exposed to a conversation about Amazon — nearly one time for every two living Americans. In addition, the brand gets a lot of sharing of its content, particularly in off-line discussions referring to its marketing. One thing that both brands have in common is that they have taken a holistic approach to consumer influence — leveraging social conversations about their brand on and off-line.

To be a successful social marketer, use the following strategies:

  • Assess which marketing levers to pull in order to ramp up social marketing. For example, through TotalSocial, a brand could determine they need more sharable online content, or that they need to increase engagement with off-line influencers.
  • Keep a finger on the pulse of competition, through assessing their competitors’ social marketing efforts and finding holes in social dialog ripe for taking over. Profiling the online and off-line social performance of competitor brands yields a treasure trove of details on new opportunities and potential competitive threats.
  • Profile social marketing among different consumer groups, to better understand the makeup of important influencers, content sharers and your loudest brand advocates.
  • Identify the channels and influencers you should be targeting. Find the right formula of media channels and influencers to drive successful brand conversations.

It is a social gaffe for any of us to be awkward IRL or too often humble-brag on Instagram. Yes, that can be embarrassing. For brands, the stakes are much higher than for people. How your brand lovers and haters talk and share about you online and off-line can either drive or harm sales. To harness the lovers and keep the haters at bay, embrace a holistic approach. Thriving for a retail brand in 2017 is all about directing the right conversations and sharing — and letting your brand be styled in part by consumer social interactions.

Brad Fay is chief research officer of Engagement Labs.

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