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Can Bad PR Be Good Marketing?

Lifestyle clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch ran into some nasty PR recently when comments by CEO Mike Jeffries were reposted from a 2006 interview and blew up the Internet.  In the piece, Jeffries boasts about the brand’s “exclusionary” marketing practices. He explains, in his typical unapologetic style, that Abercrombie won’t carry larger women’s because it simply doesn’t want frumpy old ladies to wear its clothes. Jeffries’ comments weren’t shocking; this, after all, is the same A&F that paid Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino not to wear its garments (a naked PR ploy, but one that worked).

But this time the brand’s disdain for the “uncool” masses, i.e., anyone who isn’t young, slim, and sexy, caught up with it.  (Mind you, Jeffries is 68 years old…not exactly young.) His attitude offended plenty of people, among them, an unknown videographer and aspiring author named Greg Karber. Karber decided to channel his anger into action.  He scoured thrift shops for donated A&F garments, then persuaded homeless people in L.A.’s skid row to wear them and videotaped the results, urging others to follow suit.  #Fitchthehomeless went viral almost instantly. A PR coup. Yet few would argue that this is good PR for the Abercrombie brand.

Still, despite Jeffries’ arrogant attitude, the brand’s turnaround has been based in part on one thing—its “exclusionary” marketing.  Since he became CEO, in fact, company profits have soared. Former analyst Robert Buchanan calls his record “the most amazing record that exists in U.S. retailing, period.

What Jeffries knew is that marketing exclusivity is a time-tested way to differentiate.  Often it’s based on price, product scarcity, ties to boldfaced names, or all three. But exclusivity can also turn on brand values. Even when it risks alienating other market segments, it’s powerful.  One pundit points out that the Abercrombie strategy takes a leaf from the Steve Jobs handbook. Roger Dooley posits that Apple’s early campaigns did something similar by reinforcing its appeal to creative hipster types while casting PC users as soulless corporate drones.

For me, the Apple comparison is a stretch, but a more analogous example may be Chick-fil-A. When its CEO, Dan Cathy, spoke out against marriage equality last summer, his words triggered a cascade of negative buzz in social media communities. The comments sparked boycotts and even talk of zoning prohibitions on new Chick-fil-A stores.

Yet, the squawking probably didn’t damage the brand. Chick-fil-A makes no bones about its Christian roots and values, and many loyal patrons are either Christians, or they’re agnostic—about its brand values, that is. They care about the chicken sandwich. So, although Cathy’s stand was almost certainly not a planned or proactive marketing move, you can make the argument that it appealed to a certain segment of loyal customers and possibly attracted new ones.

This type of values-based marketing is risky, because runaway controversy is hard to control and it can definitely damage a brand’s reputation. In fact, Abercrombie’s CEO has apologized for his remarks, just as Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy decided to leave his personal views out of the company business. But the communication of clear brand values, backed by a passionate following and marketed exclusively to that core, can be a potent and defensible marketing strategy. Even when it amounts to bad PR.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

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