Abercrombie & Fitch CEO: Not So Much An Apology As Making It A Lot Worse

There have been backlashes against a retail CEO's 6-year-old comments (that describes both the age of the utterances as well as the maturity of the thoughts they revealed) before, but none have been as intense and negative as those from Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) CEO Michael Jeffries. To recap, he told a reporter that his chain goes "after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong." Specifically, among the uncool people who don't belong are people whose sizes are beyond large, sizes that Abercrombie refused then—and refuses now—to offer.

It would be hard to make such an insensitive offensive situation worse, but Jeffries managed to do just that when he tried to explain his comments late last week. Not only did he not apologize for the comments, but any offense was solely in the eye of the beholder. "I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense," Jeffries said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times. His regret was not what he said, but how people got offended by them. Sheesh, fat people can be so ultra-sensitive.

More from his "let's see how bad I can make this" statement: "We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics." Given that this wasn't explicitly raised in the initial comments, this makes no sense. Unless—and here's where it gets interesting—Jeffries thought that he had indicated it. No one had interpreted his comments that way, but the fact that he did says quite a bit.

It's as though someone says to you "I don't think you were right for that position" and then clarifies the remark days later, saying "I didn't mean to suggest that you were extremely ugly." It reveals a bit about what was in the speaker's head.

Part of the issue here is that Abercrombie's point—at a big-picture level—is factual and not controversial. There's nothing exclusionist about a maternity shop saying that it doesn't want men wearing its outfits or a store selling left-handed products saying that it doesn't want right-handed people in its shops. Even more to the point, Casual Male (NASDAQ: DXLG) can choose to not focus on thin or short shoppers with no backlash. Casual Male, however, doesn't say that those non-ideal customers are uncool or defective in some way, and that's the point.

Abercrombie's new statement added: "A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers." That was the beginning of a perfectly valid statement. Then it veers off again: "However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion." Editor's Note: You never want to make a good point and then say "however," unless you want the subsequent to be interpreted as "I am now going to contradict what I just said so interpret these words are contrasting with my prior words."

The chain is "strongly committed to diversity and inclusion." In this context, that seems to mean that they embrace all genders, races, hair colors and sexual orientations, as long as they are all thin, young and classically beautiful.

What message does that send to your ideal customer? Especially an ideal customer whose friends might include people that you seem to think are uncool? Beyond the "mean girls" target, it sounds like there's plenty of offense potential (OK, reality) here.

The Times story made two other points. The first is that this is not the CEO's first run-in with saying things that seem somewhat unusual. In an age-discrimination lawsuit filed against Abercrombie last year, former company pilot Michael Bustin, 55, alleged that Jeffries required male crew members to wear the brand's boxer briefs and mandated that the end squares of toilet paper be folded.

Did this guy have some sort of an undies check on his corporate pilots? Sometimes, comment is not necessary.

But the most on-point comment in the Times was something attributed to Gabriella Santaniello, a retail analyst with Wedbush Securities. Santaniello argued that, bad publicity aside, this incident is not hurting Abercrombie in the only place that counts: It's core teen audience. "Much of the outrage stemmed from older consumers, not the more forgiving and forgetful young shoppers Abercrombie targets," is how the Times paraphrased Santaniello's remarks.

She makes a very good point, but it's not about teens being forgiving or forgetful. It's about a focus on what they care about. If the clothes look good and are at the right price—and if they look wearing them—that's a huge part of the deal. The only downside to what Abercrombie's CEO did is if teens start shunning teens that display the Abercrombie logo.

As a matter of marketing strategy, Abercrombie has historically courted controversy, pushing a decidedly sexualized series of images in ads and in their stores. If teen girls were offended by the overt sexualization, Abercrombie would have stopped long ago.

The key lesson, though, is that CEO comments about shoppers can and will be magnified. Also, if you're going to apologize for a poorly-phrased statement, then apologize. The words "I'm sorry" are a good start. In this instance, adding something like "I was drunk" or "I'm not really as much of an evil person as I sounded like" is also something worth considering.

For more:

- See Los Angeles Times story

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