It’s the marketing equivalent of asking shoppers to take a big step back in their relationship, moving from hot and sweaty and ready for action to something that’s merely flirty.
Abercrombie & Fitch is booting the shirtless beefcakes from its stores (and billboards and ads), and American Apparel is easing off the amateur-porn vibe, to be controversial in other ways.
But are their shoppers ready for the kiss-on-the-cheek good night? Will that be enough? Or will they be unhappy?
Turns out, it might not matter. Their shoppers were already pretty unsatisfied, at least according to their sagging sales and the shake-ups that deposed their lightning-rod leaders — Michael Jeffries at Abercrombie and Dov Charney at American Apparel.
There are many reasons once-hot brands cool. But part of the issue here appears to come from a shift in younger consumers’ attitudes toward overtly erotic advertising ploys. Millennials want something that’s not quite so in-your-face as a building-size billboard of a naked torso. (That’s not to say some brands on the rise aren’t making the most of risqué, à la Alexander Wang’s sultry ads for denim).
Marketing experts argue that the massive band of shoppers from their early teens to their early 30s is looking for something more true to life. The generation of Instagram is used to searching, to discovering. They tend to reject marketing that so easily serves up sex on a platter. And besides, there’s a sense of been there, done that.
“I don’t think it was working for them,” said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow of Abercrombie’s brand of sexually charged advertising. “If you do exactly the same thing every time, it’s less titillating. You’ve got to surprise and delight, do something new.”
Yarrow, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy,” said sex still sells, but that Millennials have a different spin on sexiness.
“They do sex in a much more casual way: ‘Does this look sexy? I didn’t know,’” she said. “This generation doesn’t want to look like they’re trying at all; they want to look like they were just caught being sexy.”
Branding guru Catherine Sadler, a consultant at Sadler + Brand, said, “There are ways to absolutely have sex appeal and be sexy, but it ultimately goes back to authenticity and something that feels truer and less commercial and in-your-face. For Abercrombie, that will be the challenge, that it has been so overt.”
Abercrombie is leaving behind its most recognizable marketing hook and has to find something that resonates with its brand and consumers today. It’s a needle that American Apparel’s new management is trying to thread by playing off the brand’s penchant for social themes.
While wholesale reinventions are inherently hard, there are certainly ways to be sexy but not over-the-top. Sadler pointed to Topshop’s work with Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne as an example of well-known models who show appeal but don’t necessarily bare all.
Even new lingerie brands have broken out of the boudoir.
“You can be sexy just by being confident in your own skin,” said Marissa Vosper, cofounder of online start-up Negative Underwear. “You don’t have to be putting on airs. There was one picture of what really sexy was, and it seemed like you were trying very hard. There was bronzer and big hair and glitter.”
The self-funded company is trying to paint a different picture of what sexy is, using friends as models and positioning them not just in the bedroom but drinking coffee, sitting on the couch.
“There’s a broad consumer-culture shift away from the idea of more is more,” said Vosper, arguing that there’s something bigger going on here than just a generation coming of age. “And there’s a shift toward editing back in lots of aspects of consumer culture, be it clothing, be it food, be it lifestyle. That aspect of taking away and focusing on a more authentic picture of what life is like is not unique to Millennials.”
But it’s something new to certain brands.