The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust.  Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).

Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes.  Let us count the ways…

Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting “the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website).   There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens)  that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?

Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on “boy”) reputation.  Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.”  Parental boycotts? Porn?  Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don’t think too much about that one.]  All like catnip to your underage kitty.  Meee-ow!

A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.


On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores.  A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet – now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Gucci knows how to push the rags.  The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section.  But what is A&F’s spin?  A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever.  The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18.  If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you.   ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.


A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend.  Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street.  What could it be?  Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)?  No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day.  There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner.  A velvet rope.  2008’s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch. 

There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity.  Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist.  And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.   

Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the “Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.  


Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress.  Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff.  It also has a  huge “Diversity” section on its website.  Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress.  The company can’t give up everything!


[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring “ugly” people, with the company’s “hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything.  And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.] 


Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created.  And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.

Abercrombie & Fitch  back to school shopping  clothing retail

Rising gas prices, baggage fees and the like are causing a lot of folks to plan summer vacations close to home… or at home.  UrbanDictionary defines staycation as “a vacation that is spent at one’s home enjoying all that home and one’s home environs have to offer.”  That sounds fun and relaxing – right up until you all decide you’d like to wring each other’s necks.  “Mom, there’s nothing to dooooooo!”

Over and above the normal picnic/game/pool promotions, this is a great opportunity for lots of local and national consumer-focused entities to promote themselves in this new context.

Some retailers are already getting into the act.  Wal-Mart has launched an “American Summer” campaign, cutting prices on everything from hot dogs to mosquito netting.  Their tag:  a summer getaway is “as close as your own backyard.”

Toy stores should get together recommendation lists based on budget, location (weather), age of children and so on.  Create promotions around toys and products best used at home.  And any smart local business trying to drive traffic should consider throwing a kid-friendly party:  growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I remember the parties thrown by the local Midas Muffler shop and one of the new bank branches in the community.  Hot dogs, face painting, balloons – families came out in droves.  Local, inexpensive happenings like these can create loyalty opportunities. 

Local newspapers (print and online) could feature daily and weekly ideas for great things to do around town – even borrow the concept of “3 Days In…” (see here and here for examples) and print entire itineraries for families to consider.  The web is great for this kind of editorial because it would enable a visitor to sort on the variables most important to him or her, such as distance from home, number of kids, indoor/outdoor activities, etc.  Sell incremental advertising around these features.

Local TV stations and affiliates should look at their programming schedules in the coming months and see what might be “repackaged” as stay-at-home, family fare.  Ad time could be sold to local supermarkets and other shops offering “specials” for fun nights at home.

There are also plenty of ideas being pitched for a very adult type of staycation, which usually revolve around a 2 or 3-night hotel or resort package of some sort.  Here’s one from Fodors.

Some creativity could really help businesses and families make the most of a challenging situation this summer.

NOTE:  And while you’re at home, you’ll have time to check out my second blog at http://www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com.

Have you heard of a virtual world  called Whyville?

SecondLife, Club Penguin (bought by Disney for $700 million if the owners hit their entire earn-out), There.com, Gaia, Barbie Girls, Webkinz… all of these I know.  And as a marketer, many of us have certainly looked at SecondLife in particular and said… do I have to?
 
But I somehow missed Whyville, even though it’s been around since 1999.  And more notable than its age  is its humility in the face of success:  the site has somewhere around 2.4 million active users age 8-15 (70% of whom are registered), and 60,000 new kids register each month.   As virtual worlds go, users can do all the standard things – you can chat with your friends, earn currency to buy stuff, etc. – but Whyville offers an amazing twist, a la Jerry Seinfeld’s wife hiding squash in chocolate chip cookies to get her kids to eat vegetables…

 Whyville members can play games that are actually educational – a strategy that the site’s COO calls “active brain advertising.”  Kids whose avatars don’t eat nutritionally might find their little fake selves’ faces pockmarked with scurvy; others had to clean up after the advertiser Penguin Books caused a devastating storm as part of a campaign for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So what is this place??  Whyville’s “About Us” section says that it was founded “to apply over 20 years of research in education and cooperative learning to develop new web-based tools for education,” and the company works with partners such as Getty, NASA and the School Nutrition Association to create and deliver fun content that is also educational.  Increasingly, Whyville is finding its way into the classroom, providing the ultimate endorsement.

 The site does work with advertisers and paying sponsors, like Penguin and Virgin Records, but I was impressed to learn that it also surveys members before and several times after a campaign as to the effectiveness of the advertising, possible purchase intent and other factor.  That’s good for the advertisers and the site as it works to refine its programming and adhere to its mission.  To the extent it can, I hope that Whyville continues to stay about reproach:  a Toyota campaign caught some flak – not a lot, but such an obvious play to get kids to influence their parents’ purchase of a car could have taken a chink out of the site’s educational armor.
 
And that’s not worth the risk because this is a pretty amazing site.  Luckily, just because I missed it doesn’t mean others have:  Whyville won the 2006 iParenting award for being the best kids Web site and best on the Web for its safety features.   And to me all this spells opportunity:  for kids, their parents and teachers, advertisers… and maybe a buyer in the future?secondlifesecond-life

Have you heard of a fellow named Tommy Habeeb? Mr. Habeeb has created a new product called the BabySport Water Bottle Nipple Adaptor, a little plastic nipple gizmo that screws on to the top of a regular water bottle so that a baby can drink it. It’s summer, it’s hot, these things are selling like hotcakes and everyone’s happy.

I thought of this guy when I saw MSNBC’s report this week on Starbucks’ plans to develop products specifically intended for the kids who frequent the company’s stores. My only thought was, “Genius, as usual.” But MSNBC’s spin would have made a viewer think that the evil Starbucks intended to use Habeeb’s invention to nurse infants with 670-calorie coffee drinks* – and more than once a day. Actually, the kid in this picture does seem to be struggling with the adult lid a bit… I’m kidding, I’m kidding!

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MSNBC leveraged Starbucks’ announcement to write the company into the fast-food child obesity epidemic trend story that has garnered so much attention in the last couple years. I think that’s over the top. Granted, this is not an altruistic move by Starbucks, but then again no one’s ever claimed that Starbucks is a not-for-profit. While active in many social areas, the company sees a new opportunity and it’s going to pursue it. Likewise, these corporate baristas are savvy enough to assume that perhaps it was just a matter of time before the food police would turn their attention to after-school frappuccinos with whipped cream, so the company proactively moved to position itself in a more positive light. They make more money, we think of them as offering healthy (healthier?) choices, everybody wins.

*Yawn*

It’s far more compelling to package this non-event as Motley Fool has, sounding the alarm by warning that “heavy-handed marketing to kids can open up an ugly can of worms” with the example of what happened to Reynolds Tobacco when it got caught promoting Camel cigarettes to children. Comparing Starbucks (with hot chocolate, juices, waters, etc. already available) to cigarettes? For Starbucks’ marketers and product folks, talk about “no good deed goes unpunished…”

I’ll end with some of MSNBC’s own viewers’ representative comments on the network’s website. They are hilarious and spot-on (I’ve edited for length and grammar):
mel-wags22: My boys will often get up early on a Saturday morning and we’ll go, get drinks and spend an hour just sitting in the store talking about our week. It’s good family time. If some moron wants to feed their 4 year old, double shot lattes, that’s their problem! 3Under3: As an occasional part of the late-morning stay-at-home-mom rush, I don’t have a problem with the basic kids’ drink menu of steamed milk, hot chocolate or steamed cider, and the bottled drinks, like the organic milk are good… A child who is getting a good diet at home, should be able to handle a treat sometimes without risking obesity. sweetshoppelover: This has become another non-issue perpetrated by the food police. Who are these people? My age group remembers going to the neighborhood candy store, by ourselves, to get malted milks or ice cream sodas. As for over-caffeinated teens – as I remember, that was one of the safer dumb things to do as a teenager!GreginTexas: We all know that the next step, if we allow children to overrun Starbucks, is kids in strip clubs and kids at adult book stores and kids buying alcoholic beverages at 7-11 for their kindergarten class pre-nap breaks. WHEN does this insanity end?
Agree, disagree? How much responsibility does a marketer like Starbucks – who certainly began by selling an adult drink to adult customers – have for protecting kids, beyond what they are doing today? Let me know what you think.

* Note: A vente-sized, double chocolate chip blended crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains 670 calories, including 200 fat calories and 12g of saturated fat. I picked it for effect as the wackiest gut-buster on Starbucks’ website I could find.

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A teaser for Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” blog in The New York Times today caught my eye: What do Freakonomics and “High School Musical” have in common? Levitt’s initial answer is that both efforts became surprise hits that had little reason for mainstream success.

[Sidebar: because he thought the movie was “shockingly awful,” Levitt ends with a bit of humor by hoping that his book and the Disney movie have actually nothing in common. That’s ok: Mr. Levitt is not a member of the target audience – his kids, however, are completely addicted.]

For you non-fans, High School Musical was a made-for-TV movie that debuted in January 2006 to an audience of 7.8 million viewers. It’s made about $100 million in DVD and soundtrack sales so far. HSM2 drew 17.2 million viewers on its first night last month, and the soundtrack is #1 on the Billboard chart. And if you really want to drive yourself crazy: IMDB claims the original soundtrack took five days to make…I wonder if the success of a franchise that is so innocent – that harkens back to a much more wholesome, optimistic time – seems remarkable to anyone else. The news and adult conversation today are replete with terrorism, recession, lead paint, political hopelessness and schadenfreude. My mother thinks we should move to Canada. What’s with all these happy, singing kids? Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the compelling book, Generations, and the new Millenials Rising, think they have the answer. Howe and Strauss show how today’s pre-teens and teens are distancing themselves from their parents and the recasting the very image of youth from downbeat to positive, altruistic and engaged. The evolution is most profound with younger kids, who are moving away from even older teens’ more violent and sexually-charged world. Over time, these 12-15 year olds will not only entirely recreate what it means to be young but could become our next “great generation,” a la Franklin D. Roosevelt, and bring society back to a more honorable time.

What does this mean for marketers? What product and service categories could take particular advantage of this phenomenal evolution, and how do we get from hip-hop here to a more fanciful future?