Abercrombie & Fitch and its brash CEO Mike Jeffries really have a crisis now: The company announced Friday that sales went down 17 percent for the quarter.
While sales tanked in part before a renewal of the controversy over remarks Jeffries made in 2006 about his brand’s purposeful focus on an elite, thin, good-looking clientele, the subject’s re-emergence has to be a factor — and surely will be for the next quarter.
In those remarks, Jeffries defended the exclusivity of his brand and said the company markets to “cool, good-looking people.” Huffington Post reported the comments’ reemergence sparked massive protests from teen activists, bloggers and media personalities alike, who called on Jeffries to start making plus-size clothing for women.
Several of my colleagues at Eric Mower + Associates — Allison Conte, Rick Lyke, Craig Troskosky and Evan Bloom — offered lively commentary on this in the last few weeks. If that much is bubbling up among 30+ public relations professionals, how much is hitting the 18- to 25-year-old set to which Abercrombie markets? A lot.
Abercrombie ads are filled with six-pack abs, open shirts and sultry looks, and those from the women. It’s no surprise a clothing retailer uses sex to sell its products [Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Benetton have run into problems in the past for their edginess]. But Jeffries’ comments undermined and exposed the brand in negative ways.
Two apologies are usually necessary only when the first is deemed insincere. That’s probably the case here. Jeffries’ defiant tone in the first prompted issuance of a second. If you or your company are in crisis and you decide to apologize, don’t equivocate, pretend or defy. Apologize honestly and fully.
His first: Jeffries said that he “seriously regrets” that his “choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.”
That doesn’t take responsibility, address the issue or come clean. It puts the onus on the alleged bad judgment of the critics. Not smart. Facebook erupted.
Surely remarks made seven years ago should not logically re-emerge now. But with national consciousness raising about bullying, “mean girls,” and sexual abuse crimes that perpetrators videotape because they apparently don’t see such attacks as criminal, standards are changing.
It’s doubly not acceptable for a CEO — especially one based in the same state as a recent highly publicized sexual abuse attack — to chortle about marketing to elite kids, the “cool” kids, and refuse to acknowledge by its product line anyone in a plus size as worthy of its clothes or their “coolness.”.
Dumb remarks or one bad quarter of sales, taken separately, probably don’t cost a CEO his or her job. Combined?
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.