A couple of years ago, when Rock’n’Republic jeans were all the rage, a girlfriend called me in tears.
“I can’t fit into any of the RnR jeans,” she wailed. “They only go up to size 31. Why would they do that?”
Because the only way to get people to fork out $300 for a pair of jeans is to convince them that they’re buying into some kind of aspirational lifestyle, and you can’t maintain that fiction if “ugly fat people” are parading around with your logo on their bums.
(Don’t freak out – I put “ugly fat people” in quotes to make it clear that it’s not me making that judgment, but the people who make these products. Being size 32 in jeans definitely does not make you fat or ugly.)
But here’s the thing: Emaciated LA-types represent a minority of the population, and they are extremely fickle, so restricting your target market to anorexics with an excess of disposable income is virtually guaranteed to limit your long-term growth. And when was the last time you saw someone wearing RnR jeans, or expressing a desire to buy them?
The Abercrombie & Fitch vs. Jersey Shore media frenzy
This week, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch generated a whole lot of PR for itself by making public an offer to pay the cast of Jersey Shore not to wear its clothes any more.
(Interesting sidebar: Two weeks ago, we had a friend from Germany staying with us, and on his list of things to do was a trip to A&F to pick up some clothes, since he can’t get them in Germany. My reaction was so negative – and I did, in fact, reference the idiots on Jersey Shore – that he ended up not going. But in Europe, A&F is still an aspirational brand, and considered ‘cool’.)
At first I thought the whole thing was a brilliant PR stunt. Then I wondered whether it wasn’t a little short-sighted, serving only to cement the relationship between the brand and the cheesiness of Jersey Shore forever – I mean, has Ed Hardy ever really recovered from the whole Jon Gosselin association?
And then I thought about the Rock’n’Republic example, and about how popular Jersey Shore is, and I realized that (a) if you don’t keep the plebes buying your stuff, you can’t keep growing; and (b) if A&F could survive that piece of cheese, ‘Summer Girls‘, the whole Jersey Shore association was probably a perfectly intelligent business decision.
The genius of Tiffany & Co.
As far as I’m concerned, the winner of the ‘aspirational vs plebes’ balancing act has to be Tiffany & Co. Somehow they’ve managed to maintain their position as a super-high-end brand, appealing to the Birkin bag set as a suitable place to buy a $25k engagement ring and a $2500 wedding present, while also selling masses of $100 bracelets to the plebes.
How have they managed this?
I think it’s a combination of factors:
- The brand has resided squarely in the ‘luxury’ segment of the market for 175 years, so they’re less susceptible to the whims of the marketplace
- Their pop culture references have tended towards the classic (“Breakfast at Tiffany”) rather than shoutouts in rap songs
- The cheapest thing they sell (on the Canadian website, anyway) is a $105 keychain – and $105 is still a fairly high entry-level price point
- They have resisted the temptation to trade credibility for short-term sales gains: It’s highly unlikely you’ll see Tiffany in a product placement on Keeping Up With the Kardashians any time soon
So even as they’ve gained a huge following among teenaged girls, they haven’t lost equity with their 50-year-old mothers. Which means that 20 years from now, Tiffany will likely have a healthier balance sheet than Abercrombie & Fitch.