The origin of the crisis
The reputation crisis for Abercrombie & Fitch emerged at the beginning of May 2013. Interestingly enough, this crisis is not created by any recent mistake: it exploded after the reprint of an old 2006 interview with A&F CEO Mike Jeffries.
Here the original statements as published by Salon:
For example, when I ask him how important sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the “emotional experience” he creates for his customers, he says, “It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go 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. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
‘The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch’, Salon, January 24, 2006
This now again outraging statement was recovered by Ashley Lutz at Business Insider by May 3, 2013. This time, this was the unique topic of the article: ‘Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses To Make Clothes For Large Women’ (Business Inside article here). The crisis started there. Some other media reacted, like The Huffington Post (May 9, 2013), increasing thus the social buzz.
This prompted also a petition channelled through Change.org by Benjamin O’Keeffe, asking A&F CEO for ‘Stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful; make clothes for teens of all sizes!’. It was launched by 9 May. One week after it counted with some 20,000 signatures collected (Petition here).
This was already a reputation crisis. There was some reation in the social media, but this was not really a hot topic… till USC recent graduate student Greg Karber had an idea, and put it into practice with friends James DeLorean and Daniel Lisi: they designed a call to action, they told their story and proposal in a home made 150 seconds Youtube video. They uploaded it by May 13 2013… and two day later it has 1,5 million views and counting, as it is in the midst fo the viral development.
The really amazing part of this viral success story is that Greg Karber was nothing like a Youtube/social media star. He had less than 1,000 followers in Twitter. He had his Youtube channel, but they received in average just some hundreds of views, with some ‘stellar’ hits reaching less than 10,000 views.
We want to show in this post some metrics about the social media impact of this initiative. We want to discuss also which are the core viral ingredients of this case.
We present first the viral video.
Some metrics about the viral difusion
As we have pointed out in some previous analysis, Youtube suffers from a serious weackness in providing live updates about video viewings. Youtube updates the information only few times a day. This is an irrelevant issue in almost all cases, as people are not interested in minute-to-minute evolution of viewings. But this is a major caveat from Youtube for providing useful information about viral development of videos. Virality is typically a matter of a couple of days. Hour-to-hour reliable data is essential to assess the extent of the virality process. Really, Youtube should consider serious improvements here in order to provide more valuable information for brands and corporations. The analysis of virality is essential in the context of crisis management.
As in previous cases (like ‘Gentleman by PSY dynamics’), instead of using information about views, we provide the dynamics of comments and likes, which provide accurate ad live update metrics.
Before presenting Youtube metrics, we show the viral difusion in Twitter, a key social media channel for creating viral stories.
We show in the following figure the number of mentions of the campaign labelled as #Fitchthehomeless.
We show Central European Time (CET) data.
The video was uploaded by May 13. Mentions in Twitter were irrelevant till the beginning of the afternoon of May 14, Pacific Time (18h CET). The video and the campaign became trendy by the evening of May 14. The drop of intensity of mentions after the first peak reflects that this viral dynamics in mainly feeded by US Twitter users: the controversy has reached Europe and Asia, but it is not yet a major issue there.
The figure shows also that the current corporate crisis in still in the upward trend, as May 15 peak (around 300 points) is higher than the one reached in the previous day (200 points). We will see if we reach a new maximum in May 16 or not.
We put the aggregate daily numbers in the following figure. May 15 was a massive nightmare for Abercrombie & Fitch reputation interests, in comparison with numbers got in the previous day.
(update May 17 2013)
Some data about the impact of the Youtube video views.
First figure shows the total number of days. Four days after launch, the video has reached 6 million views.
In the following figure we show the number of views per day. Peak of the viral crisis was reached by May 16, with more than 3 million views. Data from May 17 is incomplete, but end of the day figures will show a 50% decrease from the day before.
As in almost every single viral crisis, peak of intensity of diffusion is reached within the first 2-3 days. Damage control for companies requires them to take a public opinion decision as soon as possible if the company hopes to have some voice during the social media turmoil.
We provide complementary data in the following figure, where we shoe the number of likes received by the video per hour. As explained, for hourly measurements, this data is more reliable than number of views. It shows a similar picture than the one emerging from the first figure of this post (related to number of tweets): intensity of Youtube likes increase during US working hours; it decreases when it moves to European working time.
How relevant are these 6 million views of an extremely damaging video for Abercrombie & Fitch brand reputation?
Right now, this video is already the third most popular in Youtube concerning the brand Abercrombie & Fitch. Number one is produced by A&F showing well-looking male models in A&F stores, with 20 million views. Number 2 is a parody by mad TV, with 10 million views. Even if being a parody of A&F shopping experience, it can be considered as neutral for the company insterests.
This means that the #FitchTheHomeless video is tarnishing in a very substantial way the quality of the portfolio of videos about Abercrombie & Fitch in Youtube.
This is for sure a big crisis in terms of impact measured by number of people watching the video.
Next step is to asses how people are reacting when watching the incriminatory video. As Abercrombie & Fitch is a loved brand (A&F Facebook official page has more than 7,5 million fans), you could expect than many viewers could react defending their brand against accusations. The best direct way to measure reaction by viewers is the liking ratio. We present the resuls below.
Four days after launch and with more than 6 million views, the liking ratio is as high as 95.8% of all votes. Only four percent of people voted a ‘dislike’ reaction after watching the video.
This is a massive support for Greg Karber’s initiative and inflicts a severe reputation damage to Abercrombie & Fitch: almost everyone watching the video suscribe Karber’s analysis, attacks and call to boycott the brand.
This high degree of support to the critical video against A&F ranks this initative among top brand critical and brandjacking popular videos. We present in annex to this post a list of some of the most popular brand critical videos.
The main ingredients of this viral story
Every single case in viral dynamics is an unique story. This implies that, almost by definition, a viral process cannot be replicated. This is for me the main lesson I get from the quantitative analysis I made of a relevant number of viral cases. This is not what marketing and advertising agencies and consulting firms use to say to clients. I am curious to know how many times an advertising and marketing company can promise to create a viral marketing campaign. Only by exception successful viral developments have been created by professionals of marketing and advertising.
Here we have again a case that has been created by an anonymous guy with a couple of friends. This is how Greg Karper tells his story:
The video has already drawn more than 1 million views. That is impressive, Karper said, considering that another of his recent YouTube videos received just 71 views.
“I’m really not equipped to deal with this kind of phenomenon,” he said. “When I made the video I thought it would maybe spark a conversation. I didn’t expect this.”
Karper said he spent about $70 or $80 on the second-hand clothing. But he hoped the “relatively small investment will lead to an outpouring of donations.”
‘Man hands out Abercrombie clothes on skid row in bid to shame brand’, W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times, May 15 2013
This entire story is clearly far away from any marketing strategy perfectly designed by a powerful and creative team from a top advertising agency. Nevertheless, this is truly a perfect viral marketing strategy. At a 70-80$ cost, plus some hours of work for creating the video.
The most striking element of this huge viral crisis is that it has been created and launched by a really little David ready to fight against a really powerful Goliath. Consider that the perimeter of influence of Greg Karper was really limited. By May 15 he counted with some 1,400 followers in Twitter. For sure, the vast majority of them were gained between 14 and 15 May. Clearly, a bunch of twitter followers is not the perfect platform for launching a ‘massive reputation crisis attack’ against a big and respected corporation. But it worked.
Each viral case is one in a kind. This new case is an additional proof that in the age of the social media, there is no ‘to big to fail’ corporate brands. Any powerful brand may be confronted by serious reputational crisis designed by anonymous people. This kind of initiative would have been harmless for corporate interests in the pre social media era. My guess is that many top managers in powerful corporations still believe and behave as if they were under pre social media rules. They don’t apply anymore.
Ingredient 1: There is an open issue
#Fitchthehomeless did not create the A&F reputation crisis. They just amplified it. The crisis was latent since 2006. It was activated by the Business Insider article at the beginning of May 2013. It was sustained by other critical news appearances and the absence of reaction of A&F CEO or representatives. It entered into the social media activism through Change.org petition. And it finally exploded with the #Fitchthehomeless Youtube video. Like in nature, the virus needs an appropriate broth to become pandemic.
Ingredient 2: Provide a new twist in the controversy
The main focus of the crisis prior to the video was linked to the fact that Abercrombie & Fitch does not sell XXL size clothes, as a branding strategy. Both the articles in the news and the Change.org petition were oriented towards forcing A&F to reconsider this strategy, as it channeled very negative messages to large women.
Greg Karber introduced a new element, less present in the social conversation: Abercrombie & Fitch shows also a really terrible SCR profile, as they want that only wealthy looking people wear their products. Below is the caption of a news reference included in the Youtube video.
References to these practices appeared in some secondary sources, as old as by 2010 (see for instance Gather Business, November 12, 2010). This practice is apparently followed by other fashion firms, but the link with poor people was not made in such an explicit way. H&M suffered a similar crisis and announced by 2010 that they would stop burning unworn clothing (New York Times, January 6, 2010).
So, Greg Karber took advantage of the ongoing criticism against A&F corporate practices, and recovered another old ‘dormant’ issue, in order to create a lethal new recombined virus. He ‘just’ needed to feed the story in order to ensure viral diffusion. This is ingredient 3.
Ingredient 3: Tell me a story easy to understand and to watch
A good story is a clear and well explained story. This is the case. We have the ugly and powerful villain (Abercrombie policies, CEO statements). The video depicts how repugnant and abject the evil side is. This is reinforced by insisting that the company is extremely proud in following practices that are shown as awful by the narrator.
Then comes the mission. The ordinary Mr. Everybody man realizes that has received a call. An overwhelming and disproportionate call: he will kill the terrible and mighty dragon. He alone, without weapons, without money, without influence, without any particular skill. And the answer he gives is YES, here I am, ready to fight against the impossible… and ready to win. “Today, we are going to change their brand”.
Then we follow the unexpected hero in his adventures. We see him taking his audacious decision; he reacts and starts his trip towards the unknown. We will see him looking for alliances with other powerless homeless heroes; even there he will suffer setbacks making him doubt about the sense of his mission (‘at first, people were reluctant to accept the clothes”). Suddenly, the trend of the story changed: (“My expedition was a huge success”). Music and emotive images of transformation lead us to confirm that something new is emerging.
Mr Everybody hero won the first battle. Against all odds. But in order to kill the Monster and his mighty army, every Mr and Ms Everybody should rouse and join the popular army. all together may win the war: guerrilla will be the strategy. In a guerrilla framework, each militiaperson can inflict true damages to the regular army in the evil side. Now is the turn of everybody to react against the injustice: because there is a chance of victory, because the unexpected hero did it before you. This is the general call to arms speech:
But I am just one person
and I can’t clothe the homeless
and transform a brand by myself.
I’m going to need your help
so look to your closets, your friends’ closets
Together we can make Abercrombie & Fitch
The world’s number one brand
of homeless apparel
This is simply perfect storytelling. This also shows the power of storytelling in branding (here, branding a cause).
A powerful story is the key factor: content is king. Next step is not to damage its value. Good quality production is also needed. Karber and friends did a good job also there, as the video scenes are well chosen; they combine with external sources and images; and use a lot of helping-to-follow-the-story-text. This technique ensures that while watching the video, the key elements of the story are underlined. It also increases the ratio sharing/viewing: I can comfortably attach the Youtube video in my Facebook posts and tweets and strongly recommend viewing it because I know that it contains quality both in content and in form.
Ingredient 4: a clear and feasible call to action
The story is great, perfectly designed and executed. Now, it needs to be shared. As the initial sphere of Karper’s social media influence is very limited, the only chances of viral development are to count with an extremely high rate of sharing/viewing.
The design of a successful and viral call to action is an elusive art. If the cause is asking for a costly reaction, many allies will abandon. If the task imposed is too weak, respondents will consider that their individual mission and contribution is irrelevant and useless, and many will not react. The balance is extremely hard to obtain. I think that Greg Karber mastered in identifying the best possible call to action.
Here is how it is explained in the video:
The call to action is again simply perfect. This is the underlying mechanism:
If you are outraged as we are by the corporate policies followed by Abercrombie & Fitch then, why are you still wearing their clothing? If you do so, you belong in fact to the Evil Side.
We do not call you to a traditional boycott. This is not just about stop buying A&F products.
Why don’t we all use the enemy’s weapons against them?
If you just stop buying and wearing A&F casual and ‘exclusive’ product, the enemy will still remain as powerful as before. This would be a poor call to action: very costly for the individual, with limited corporate damages.
Instead, you can help us in breaking the rule that A&F is a brand used exclusively by well-looking and wealthy people. Give your A&F to people in need. #Fitchthehomeless
If you do so, you take a serious personal decision and commitment. You will be proud of it. But you can also become another Mr/Ms Everybody hero for others. Share your courageous and generous action with others. Let everybody know that the guerrilla is acting. That this is a powerful movement, and that it may become stronger if my friends and people connected in my social network know that I am taking action. I can play a relevant role in throwing away my A&F clothing and asking my friend to do so. Now you can do it, as you are in the social media. Share it. Make is viral. You can.
Ingredient 5: a call to action that contains the seeds of virality
#FitchTheHomeless initiative did also the best in ensuring the maximum level of sharing among viewers by additional elements, besides the main design of the call to action presented as Ingredient 4.
They chose a hashtag. Of course, this is a basic and very common practice. Here it federates all efforts into a single battle-cry. It provides visibility and creates branding around the boycott action.
It is telling everybody that action continues in the social media, especially in Twitter. Every tweet using #FitchTheHomeless fosters the social media conversation and spreads the impact of the movement to ever increasing circles.
The interesting thing of this call to action is that everyone can contribute in the guerrilla efforts even if not being Abercrombie & Fitch costumer. You can just share the message, share the video or simply react showing how outraged are you with A&F CEO’s remarks. The cost of a RT is almost null, but it has a positive effect in spreading the impact of the reputation crisis.
So, just liking the initiative is enough for joining the movement and contributing to its success by sharing the content in the social media network. The call to action contains the seeds of virality, because it allows different levels of personal contribution to the cause.
Branding impact for Abercrombie & Fitch
Consider how damaging #FitchTheHomeless is for Abercrombie & Fitch if it really becomes viral (as it currently is).
#FitchTheHomeless is not calling directly to a boycott. Nobody can impose stopping this movement, as it is not calling for illegal actions. Karber is just proposing using used clothes for a social good-will purpose. Nobody can attack this for suggesting this use of used A&F clothes. (We will see later that this is nevertheless one of the open issues associated to this initiative).
Greg Kalber and friends hope that if the movement of A&F costumers giving their clothes to homeless and other people in need, an actual rebranding dynamics will emerge for Abercrombie. The fashion company won’t be perceived anymore as the perfect fashion brand for successful young people. Their aim is that this will push A&B board and management to reconsider their criticised policies.
The actual branding impact could definitively be much deeper and worse than that. This current social media crisis could dramatically modify the brand values associated to A&F. This is/was a very prestigious brand among many wealthy and educated young people. From now on, even if you do not share #FitchTheHomeless action and you still love A&F design and aesthetics, you will be aware that many people will consider A&F as a non-ethical and discriminatory brand. Before the crisis, wearing A&F was a symbol of personal status and pride. After this crisis, many will feel embarrassed and ashamed by wearing something that many people will perceive as disgusting.
Really, if the #FitchTheHomeless action still widespreads and keep its momentum for a while, we will definitively assist to a terrible and lasting fall of fortune of an otherwise powerful and admired brand. Provoked by a 144 seconds Youtube video created by a less than 1,000 Twitter followers smart and outraged anonymous guy.
Abercrombie & Fitch reaction to #FitchTheHomeless crisis
We have here also a very nice case to study. How to react to a burning crisis which is created by your own company CEO praising its own key branding strategy?
Of course, the tone used by the A&F CEO Mike Jeffries makes it easily disgusting. But, besides the tone, there is the content. You can easily acknowledge a mistake in the way you explain your branding strategy. But if you say that your actual branding strategy is wrong, you are forced to modify your business. If you believe that your branding strategy was the correct one making you unique, you may put your business at risk.
In the other side of the dilemma, if you do not provide some empathy with the critics and announce the revision of actual procedures, you allow the crisis to grow. Growing crisis impose severe and dramatic business decisions by their own force.
We have already an official reaction by A&F. It was published in the official A&F Facebook and linked in a tweet.
We rate this reaction as a fail.
Here the full statement
A note from Mike, our CEO:
I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. 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.
Abercrombie & Fitch official Facebook Page, May 15 2013
Instead of sharing our view about this statement, we select some tweets reacting to it.
Or this terrible one
Update: 24 August 2013
Abercrombie & Fitch provided guidance concerning third quarter results. They expect a 10% fall in sales, and earning falling 60% compared to market estimates. Market received the ugly news with a 20% drop in A&F stocks.
We attach here some external referenced concerning the change of fortune of the fashion retailer.
Brand critical and brandjacking videos
#FitchTheHomeless is another milestone in Youtube history of successful videos created to attack brand or business practices.
We present below a sample of the more popular videos. We rank them not by the number of views received, but by the liking ratio. As all of them are videos explicitly critics towards the brand, the higher the liking ration, the bigger the reputational damage suffered by the company. In addition to this, the more the popular the video is, the larger the extent of the brand damage.
United Breaks Guitars
By an anonymous customer
Liking ratio: 98%
Popularity: 13 million views
If Animals Would Eat at McDonalds
By a computer animation company
Liking ratio: 96.9%
Popularity: 1 million views
Abercrombie & Fitch Gets a Brand Readjustment #FitchTheHomeless
By an anonymous individual
Liking ratio: 95.8%
Popularity: 6,5 million views (by May 18, 2013)
Exxon Hates Your Children
By the activist group ‘The Other 98%’
Liking ratio: 95.2%
Popularity: 350,000 views
Koch Bros – It’s the evil thing
By the activist group ‘The Other 98%’
Liking ratio: 95%
Popularity: 150,000 views
Liking ratio: 94.7%
Popularity: 1.7 million views
FedEx Guy Throwing My Computer Monitor
By an anonymous customer (see also our crisis metrics analysis)
Liking ratio: 94%
Popularity: 9 million views
Have a break?
By Greenpeace UK
Liking ratio: 89.9%
Popularity: 600.000 views
By the author of documentary Super Size Me
Liking ratio: 89.5%
Popularity: 5.3 million views
Barbie’s rainforest destruction habit REVEALED!
Liking ratio: 86.4%
Popularity: 1.7 million views