Our last blog post talked about ‘social intelligence’ as “a new life skill for brands”, and focused on Abercrombie & Fitch as retailer desperately in need of some.
But over on Twitter, @AlexPearmain had a question for us: “What would you have them DO?” A very good question! And, being a bit of a fashion brand nerd, I couldn’t resist working out the answer.
That is, if Abercrombie was closer to their customers they’d have seen this coming. Here’s how research could help them get back together.
Defining the problem
So Abercrombie have faced global negative press – headlines like, ‘Thin and beautiful’ customers ONLY: How Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t want ‘larger people’ shopping in its stores.
But this discussion is led by adults, people outside A&F’s target demographic. Maybe their customers think differently? Marketer Nicola Carter argued in the Guardian:
“A&F’s target audience are the cool kids at school, primarily teenagers. If Mean Girls is to be believed, members of this cool clique are thin, attractive, and prepared to protect their position – even if that means picking on the fat kids. It sounds like A&F’s positioning as a cliquey brand that likes to exclude others (especially the bigger boned) will be just great for that group’s filters.”
Some adults’ opinions certainly do matter to Abercrombie & Fitch: those of investment analysts, the people influencing their share price. That share price is well below 2011 levels, and below the heights reached in 2005-2008. Finance sites report their stock as a sell recommendation, and rising up the ranks of the most-shorted. Analysts’ comments continually talk about Abercrombie ‘losing its cool’ and failing to keep up with trends. So A&F need to do some serious repositioning work to fix that problem.
But worse, the evidence is strong that Abercrombie’s target customers are indeed being put off. Sales fell 13% last quarter. And Abercrombie are having continuing problems with inventory, which strongly suggests they don’t know what customers want, when, in which stores and in what quantities. Consumer tracker surveys back this up: sentiment about the brand is down.
Meanwhile, Florida 18-year-old Benjamin O’Keefe has set up a Change.org petition with 78,000 signatures calling for an end to their size discrimination. And their Facebook profile is a mess:
Put Abercrombie & Fitch back in touch with its customers.
Recognise a grain of truth in the offensive things its CEO has said in the past - “Candidly, we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
So Abercrombie seeks to be an aspirational brand. We can work with that.
Thing is, it’s out of touch with what’s aspirational among its core audience.
It also needs to learn about how aspirations have changed. What’s aspirational in a difficult economic climate? Is ‘aspiration’ even as relevant to Millennials, or are other values in the ascendant? And how does Abercrombie evolve its white preppy aspiration model in an America that’s rapidly becoming majority-minority?
Our research approach
So we’ve been talking about “socially intelligent research” a lot recently at FACE – now here’s a chance to outline what this might look like in practice.
1. Participation is continuous with teens’ existing digital lives
Why this is socially intelligent: An immersive research experience gives deeper, more accurate insights. We can also use passive data collection from social media to gain insights at scale to validate – and extend – our thinking.
What this looks like:
- Research tasks take place on Pinterest and Tumblr – sites they’re already using. We don’t want essays about what teens find aspirational – we want them to show us visually
- Chats and video hang-outs through Skype and Google Hangouts
- All already mobile-optimised – completely essential for this age-group
Doing research that fits with teens’ digital lives also means integrating the data created by their social media activity. We’d do this in two ways:
1. Social media brand tracking to capture what tens of thousands of people think about the brand, not just our direct participants. These insights can be fed into the research community as questions or tasks – or resources we invite them to reflect on. This way we triangulate our insights and build much more robust conclusions.
2. Integrate teens’ digital activity into our community as a data resource. With their permission, mine their Facebook activity, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, YouTube and other media use. We get more accurate data – what they actually say & do, not their recollections of their behaviour. And the participants are of course incentivised for this data sharing and get to focus on the more fun and creative tasks.
2. Teen participants as co-creators, not research subjects
Video has to be central to this research – we’re talking to a generation making YouTube videos, Instagram video, Vine and Snapchat. It’s also a great way to deliver stories and on-the-ground narratives in a digital way – cutting down our research time and costs.
So we’d propose to use video in many of our tasks:
- “Auto-ethnography” and narrating their experiences
- Interviewing friends
- Involve a couple of particularly video-literate participants in editing and producing final videos, aggregating the group’s submissions
Key to an ethnographic model is inviting self-reflection – that is, never disrespect your research participants by assuming they’re not capable of analysing their own behaviour. Teens can be some of the most self-aware people out there in terms of thinking through social & group norms and how they modify their behaviour to fit. Given that we’re talking about what’s aspirational, it’s crucial to bring this social reflexivity in.
We’re doing that with the video ethnography methods – but we’d also involve our participants in the research analysis process and test our insights with them. They are co-creators and the ultimate judges of our brand positioning outputs – if it can’t pass our teen test panel, it’s not yet a solution for Abercrombie.
[Source: How To Be An Explorer Of The World by Keri Smith]
3. Immersive experience for brand stakeholders
Why this is socially intelligent: Research needs to work as thoughtfully with the needs & cultures of our clients as we do with our participants. Abercrombie’s a fashion company: 100-slide Powerpoint decks won’t help them change.
What this looks like:
- Video outputs strong emotive communication of the overall message. We’re trying to reposition a brand – it’s got to work at gut-level if it’s going to succeed.
- Video is also more shareable around the company than a PPT
- Moodboards on Pinterest and Tumblr provide a lasting and visual resource, helping designers and stylists keep in touch with their
- Final delivery involves face-to-face interactions with our participants – e.g. in-store walkthroughs and workshops. This brings the message home to Abercrombie execs in an immersive and unforgettable way
So that’s an outline of how we’d help Abercrombie get back in touch with its customers and return to being a brand teens want to wear – and buy – again.
Most of the project’s run digitally, meaning it’s faster, cheaper, and able to cover more of Abercrombie’s customers and markets. It combines the scale of social media research with the deep ethnographic insights of qual – because here at FACE we don’t believe these things are exclusive. And it produces rich visual, video and immersive outputs – no Powerpoint required.
Socially intelligent research, using social data, to turn brands into ‘social businesses’ able to tap into all the ideas, creativity and resources beyond their walls. That’s our vision.