To Be (Social) Or Not To Be

It is difficult for me not to discuss the recent Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) controversy while on the topic of teens. A&F is a brand that is nearly 100% focused on the teen market and has always communicated in a very, um, distinctive way with them. But has the company's CEO, Mike Jeffries, now alienated the core consumer that made the brand the success it is today?

We all know the story – a 2006 interview with Jeffries recently reemerged and went viral, receiving a tremendous amount of negative attention. Jeffries had made numerous comments stating that A&F intentionally does not produce women's clothing in larger sizes because they do not market to unattractive individuals – "we go after the cool kids," he said. Fast forward and sales are plummeting, consumers are boycotting, bloggers and celebrities are speaking out, and now A&F is issuing a series of apologies to stop the bleeding.

It's no surprise that many teens pay attention to a brand's stance on social issues. Whether it's about the environment, abortion, bullying, or in this case, what's considered cool, discovering what a company does or does not support is just a few clicks away. Some brand philosophies are more overt (Boy Scouts anyone?) while others require a little digging (who knew Nestlé leads a global initiative to improve the lives of cocoa farmers while ensuring a 100% sustainable cocoa supply).



Taking a public position on social issues can be a risky move for brands, but it can also be incredibly rewarding, resulting in a loyal consumer base. A few immediate examples come to mind when I think about brands openly "speaking" out:

- Patagonia: Sends out eblasts, encouraging consumers to vote on specific environmental issues

- Kenneth Cole: Pro-choice and clearly states it in clever advertising campaigns

- Ben & Jerry's: Publicly proclaims their support of same sex marriage

- Susan G. Komen: Terminated large grants to Planned Parenthood, which was construed as anti-abortion (they later reversed course)

Should brands weigh in on social issues, or is marketing an inappropriate place for politics? I don't believe there is a black and white answer to this, but perhaps there are a few key things to consider before walking down this potentially controversial path.

- Is your stance an inherent part of your brand DNA? If the message is closely intertwined with your brand essence (i.e., Patagonia) then it may be a wise and fruitful choice. If it's more an opportunity to make news, the result could be detrimental.

- Advocate for something but don't be extremist about it. We can all appreciate supporting a cause and believing in something passionately, but almost nobody likes narrow-mindedness.

- Speak to your consumer, but also know that the rest of the world is listening. While A&F likely felt its core consumer would appreciate the "compliment," it backfired and now its very own are walking away from the brand.

- Keep in mind that charitable contributions can also be controversial -- even those made from personal funds. Donating is a remarkable act, just be aware that these choices often make a statement on which values you and/or your organization support.

- If you have a point of view, stick to it. Komen ultimately offended both sides of the political spectrum by waffling back and forth on whether to support or not to support Planned Parenthood. 

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