Concerned that its image is being tainted by the rowdy stars of reality TV show Jersey Shore, fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch has taken the unusual step of offering to pay them to not wear its clothes.
Specifically singling out Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino from MTV's TV show, who prominently wears Abercrombie apparel, the brand announced that it has offered compensation to the hard-partying star to cease wearing A&F products.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Abercrombie & Fitch commented: "We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's The Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternate brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."
Now in its fourth season, the popular reality show details the exploits of the loud and hedonistic cast as they carouse around the US state of New Jersey – clearly a lifestyle that Abercrombie & Fitch does not want to associate with its more ‘preppy’ image.
But will its move to pay off the cast from using its clothes save its brand from damage – or make ‘the situation’ even worse?
A&F certainly isn’t the first brand to attract unwanted advocates. Fashion brand Burberry famously became the uniform of choice with football hooligans and so-called ‘chavs’ in the UK, to the extent that some pubs and clubs banned customers who wore the label. At the time, the brand blamed a downturn in sales on its adoption by this unsavoury element.
While there was no high-profile star to crack down on, Burberry did seek to reduce the visibility of its distinctive checked pattern from its goods, including entirely removing its checked baseball caps from its line.
In a more recent example, retail outlets targeted by looters in the recent UK riots have had insult added to injury by experiencing a fall in brand perception as a result of their association with this unsavoury element.
With Adidas and Nike branded clothing featuring prominently in media coverage of the looting, both labels saw their brand buzz plummet, according to YouGov data. Elsewhere, Blackberry’s association with the rioters has been well-documented, with looters using its Blackberry Messenger to coordinate attacks. This has resulted in its brand buzz dropping from 7.9 to -6 since the unrest.
But in the age of endorsements, businesses are also very sensitive to the power and influence wielded by celebrities. Mike Spicer, CEO at Pulse Group, highlights: "Brands are much more aware of the impact that media and celebrity culture have created with the growing need for transparency in the public domain. Brands are now responding more quickly than ever to negative associations and are now choosing celebrities or programmes that are closely aligned to the brand values in order to present it in the most positive, and plausible, way."
A bold move
And so it is that Abercrombie & Fitch has chosen to address the negative perception that it believes it is attracting via Jersey Shore. And A&F’s announcement – even if it is done as a stunt – has been hailed by some as a very positive move.
Customer experience expert, and founder of consultancy smith+co, says: “For me it is a terrific example of a Bold brand in that Abercrombie & Fitch are very clear about what their brand stands for (aspirational lifestyle) and who it is targeted at (preppy teenagers). I think it's innovative offer is a real win/win for the brand because if the cast of The Jersey Shore accept the money NOT to wear its clothes it removes the potential for negative brand associations and if the cast do not accept the money and continue to wear A&F product it then becomes a continuing reminder that these people are not A&F target customers.
“In either case it draws attention to the brand and what it stands for. The trouble with most brands is that they are unwilling to make these strategic choices and want to be all things to all people and offend nobody. This is probably the first example of 'negative product placement' - i.e. we will pay you NOT to show our product- and it opens up all kinds of possibilities!”
Julian Reiter, MD of brand marketing firm Positive Thinking, agrees: “I think it’s a very brave and brilliant move – it certainly gives the story more talkability and raises an important debate about reputation being central to brand success and the decisions brands need to take to keep their marketing strategies on track. I’m sure it is a publicity stunt, and a hilariously clever one at that! There’s only one clothing firm one the lips of millions of people today – that can hardly do any harm, can it?”
Craig Wheeler, managing director at direct response and relationship marketing agencywdmp, believes that its move will strike a chord with many consumers.
“My ‘water cooler’ research indicates that I’m not the only person groaning at the prospect of Big Brother being back on our screens and frustrated at the number of reality TV shows filling an already dull TV schedule. So good on Abercrombie and Fitch for trying to protect the brand. It could be seen as a smart PR move, one that will certainly get the brand talked about and deliver column inches. Plus it might also create a positive impression of the brand by striking a chord with like-minded people who are tired of lacklustre reality programmes. At a time when society is taking a stand on a number of recent issues at least we now know that Abercrombie and Fitch are willing to do the same. I wonder if the marketing folk at Burberry wish they had done something similar a few years back.”
Backfiring on the brand
But not all reactions have been positive, and there are some concerns that the stunt could backfire on the brand.
“Companies should avoid negative stories and bad press as much as possible, and in my opinion, A&F has acted in a way that might benefit ‘Jersey Shore’, yet damage its own reputation,” says JR Little, senior consultant at brand agency The Brand Union.
“It's a risky move, regardless of how you spin it. If it is for PR purposes only, and it appears to be, it could raise awareness of the brand but it’s unlikely to increase sales. Americans don't like it when corporations pick on individuals. There will always be an Americana bias to support the underdog. In this situation, it appears that a corporation has picked on a guy who has every right to wear what he wants. Sure, his values might not match those of the company (hard argument to buy from a company with many controversies under its distressed-leather belt), but going on the offensive may make A&F appear to be a bully, and simply empowering 'The Situation' to speak out against them on TV and social media (as he already has).”
Raman Sehgal, owner of ramarketing, also believes that the label could be playing a dangerous game. “As a big fan of the A&F brand, I think this is quite a risky strategy. It's a very interesting move from a brand equity perspective but one that could backfire big style in terms of financial costs. Brands have to accept they can't control everything. The fashion brands that were given unwanted exposure by criminals in the recent UK riots highlight this point. They, like A&F, have to keep faith in their real target audience in that they will not be swayed by such fad shows and media exposure.”
Mark Blayney Stuart, head of research at The Chartered Institute of Marketing, agrees. “It's a strange reaction because trying to control how your brand is perceived is likely to be counter-productive. Better to take the positive effects that come from 'any publicity is good publicity' and don't worry about elements you don't like. Burberry has suffered from its 'chav' association. But the point is, you just have to be robust and get on with it. If Burberry had started paying people it didn't like not to wear its brand, it would have just made things worse (if it had any effect at all).”
He adds: “If it is a publicity stunt, it's a weary one. The problem with a story like this is that a conspiracy theory can be quickly read into it. When Gap changed its logo a while ago and then changed it back again, what was an almighty cock-up was being cynically supposed in some areas as a publicity stunt. Which in a way confirms our starting point; at the end of the day, any publicity is, on the whole, good publicity. Trying to influence what other people think about you, however, is doomed.”
Jessica Bower of brand development agency Sundance, picks up on this final point: "A&F and other brands would do well to remember that brands exists through how others see them, not always how the brand/company sees itself. That is the inherent challenge in managing brands."
Ultimately, of course, the impact of A&F’s action will only be clear once the dust settles. And while some – including Michael Sorrentino himself – leapt upon the news that the brand’s stock price dipped last week, experts have suggested this was more likely the result of other factors rather than its offer to the cast of Jersey Shore.
What is clear, however, is that this story has certainly attracted a lot of attention to Abercrombie & Fitch over the past week. And as Blayney Stuart emphasised: “Any publicity is good publicity.”
“They have both generated an enormous amount of press from this (more column inches than their PR company will know what to do with), as well as given themselves a huge platform to reiterate their premium positioning,” concludes Stuart Wood, executive creative director at FITCH. “Maybe they could pay me to stop writing about it.”