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Recession and Brand ambassadors

According to Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge “In a recession, consumers become value oriented… But a downturn is no time to stop spending on marketing.”

Recession is the time when one can gain on the competitors’ weakness more than any other phase and consumers are willing to switch and test new brands rather than sticking to one. If they feel that their brand doesn’t connect with them then this is the time that the risk of switching over is more. A consumer who sticks with you even in a recession is loyal.

A downturn is no time to stop spending on marketing. But neither is it to continue wasteful spending. In a downturn the consumer is more likely to buy your product rather than your brand. Therefore until and unless you communicate the value that your product gives rest all efforts would be wasted. One method of communicating the value is through brand ambassadors. Here the question is much beyond recession. Choosing a brand ambassador does not depend on recession or boom but reviewing your brand ambassador during recession keeps a brand updated and ready to face new challenges.

Pillsbury Doughboy
Pillsbury Doughboy

A brand ambassador is generally the companys face to the consumer. It can either be a person like Amitabh Bachchan for Cadburys or a character like Fido Dido of 7up.

A human ambassador is generally someone who is famous or well recognized. The company gets the advantage of instant recognition and recall and top of the mind awareness. The loyal sets of fans adopt products wholeheartedly given the purchasing power. A celebrity endorsement can be helpful for a brand to maintain attention to its brand and category. People would be more keen to watch a celebrity on screen. However if given a choice an organization should always restrain from it simply because most of the celebrity endorsements tend to follow the hockey stick effect – they rise for sometime to fall forever. A marketer or any businessman for that matter would like to control the risks as much as possible and everyone knows that a celebrity endorsement is often uncontrollable off the screen. Michael Phelps was videotaped smoking Marijuana, Kellogs for whom he was the ambassador pulled him instantly following public outcry and protests. The damage is reversible but expensive. Back home, Hansie Cronje endorsed Siyarams, soon to be hooked in a match fixing scandal. The cost and damages far outweigh the benefits, if things go wrong. Such incidents can be alarmingly damaging and a recession would just deepen the wounds.

Tweet bird
Tweet bird

On the other hand, a character is a reliable option. It is totally controllable and has no risk of being replicated. The incremental effect of a brand character on the consumers is also significant. The brand character can be extremely effective for smaller and medium sized companies who do not have cash resources to fund a celebrity, especially in a recession. Moreover a character can be molded over a period of time, especially, when you need to communicate a new position that marketers often take during a recession trying to undo the mistakes that they had previously accumulated. Hence Onida could easily change its devil character over the period of time to add more value into their communication, as they are targeting the conservative and cautious consumer. Hence Ronald Mcdonalds face remains synonymous in the minds of its young target audience who are being wooed unsuccessfully by Burger King and other outlets. Things can not be better if your consumer is loyal to you even during recessions because they want fun and nothing signifies it better than McDonalds Ronald McDonald, the ever smiling ambassador, recession or not. A brand character over a period of time can hence help you own a word in the mind of the consumer and enhance your positioning or maintain it. Hence, Ronald Mcdonald  relates to “fun”, the AMUL girl signifies a “healthy and happy child”.

Recessions are times when a company needs to thoroughly examine its brand associations. A check needs to be done to ensure that the association is a source of equity. However, thoughtless marketing has more often than not, wasted company’s resources on extravagant brand endorsements. It gets painful when the consumer realizes lack of synergy between him/her and the brand primarily due to its erroneous secondary associations. This dissatisfaction hurts the company the most during recession when the consumer has more choices to switch and there are competitor brands repositioning themselves to woo the undecided consumer.

mE? Really?
mE? Really?

More often than not Brand endorsements, especially, come at the expense of an idea. Everyone remembers when Zoozoos and the Pugs walked away with the honors while Airtel was busy spending crores on Sharukh, Madhavan etc. An idea overpowered the blandness of celebrities. Brand ambassadors mean that you are forced to weave your brand around the celebrity than the other way around. This results in lack of believability and consumers fail to associate themselves with the brand. How believable is it when Deepika Padukone says that she uses orbit white? Whereas, HappyDent had a brilliant idea that needed none to endorse. Does Aishwarya Rai use Lux? Then why does she say “Dus rupaye mein Lux”? The consumer believes that the benefit they promise should also be false. Lifebuoy on the other hand is a brand that communicates the idea of health, without being dependent on the power of brand ambassadors and owns the word “Health” in the minds of its customers. The crucial ingredient  in the success of any brand is its claim to authencity and poor brand ambassadors destroy it.

How brands perform in a recession is a sum of everything that the brand has done in the past to force the consumer behave the way he/she does in a recession. If it is unfavorable, then there is no better time to change than recession. Repositioning during a downturn is lesser obvious than when things are going on fine. Repositioning during recession communicates that the brand is willing to change according to new conditions.

Now suppose a management is adamant on the use of brand ambassadors to revive a brand, how do you enable it.

 The answer is going back to the basics of making a brand ambassador, or, for that matter, any brand association, believable and credible. If the consumer feels that the brand ambassador is the brand itself then there is nothing better than that and that will not be possible until and unless  there is exclusivity in your selection. The only brand that comes to my mind when I hear Vishwanathan Anand is NIIT. But for Sharukh Khan? Brands should hence not fall into the ‘Khan trap’ and should look for more economical sources of equity. Brands should awaken to the power of zero cost internal marketing assets like your customers, internal as well as external, who can represent your brand. Starbucks is what it is today not because of any ads, in fact they hardly

Starbucks  Barista - Got Milk?
Starbucks Barista – Got Milk?

advertise, but due to the service experience that the employees or the Starbucks “partners” help provide. These kinds of brand ambassadors are especially relevant to brands that are service oriented. Even the high end apparel brand Abercrombie and Fitch uses only its sales representatives as its brand ambassadors. Consumers are willing to pay extra for a good service where the employees represent the brand wholeheartedly and hence enhance the brand equity and create a win-win relation. Many product brands are now shrugging of the albatross around their necks of the brand ambassadors and using its consumers or a seemingly normal person as its brand ambassadors. We have seen Dove doing it and Maggi and KurKure do the same with the faces of consumers on its packages. Leveraging on your free marketing assets results in greater efficiency of your communication and more credibility- critical during recessions. It bonds them into a relation that will see you through the recession without any ripples. Real or not, these are much more effective than a celebrity who is never going to eat KurKure or concoct his/her own version of maggi.

Zero Cost marketing asset leverage
Zero Cost marketing asset leverage

Hence, given a choice opt for better ideas more than secondary associations. Incase, you feel that you need a brand ambassador adopt a brand character. If you are still dissatisfied then opt for credible, exclusive as well as zero cost marketing assets like your consumers and employees to be your brand ambassadors. It will create a long term brand equity and better “hard-to-attack” points of differences that the consumers would like to vouch for even in a recession, even if it means a higher price.

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Abercrombie and Fitch: What are ethics?

abercrombie-and-fitch

All American

Abercrombie and fitch, founded in 1892. It was primarily an outdoor apparel company that had the like of  JFK using it.

Suffered financial setbacks in the late 1960 s and was taken over by Michael Jeffries in 1992. What a change it brought. From a respected brand that had famous people self endorsing it, it decided to go a path that less companies would tread into. Michael jeffries along with Sam shahid found models or great looking individuals who would represent the store as their salespeople.  ANF became paranoid under Michael Jeffries to get the look. It was to such an extent that there was a statement doing rounds that time that claimed that  “Abercrombie executives must be the 450 best-looking people in Columbus. Anyone of them could take a spot in front of the store as a greeter in a pinch. That wasn’t an accident. Jeffries wants executives who closely resemble his target market.” And indeed it was.

Did i see a black in there?

Did i see a black in there?

The TM was clear. The college going 12-22 year old aspirational american student and of course WHITE! They launched one of the most offensive racial and ethnic campaigns. They had white people splashed all over their campaigns and in giant life size posters all around the store. The image they wanted to portray was simple. An all american image. An image they sold. They did not sell products but they sold an image. They launched offensive t shirts with the title ” Two wongs together can make t white” referring to the chinese immigrants. They pulled that after a couple of days. Got publicity in exchange. The more parents protested against it, the more kids wanted to own it.

“Who needs a brain when you have these?” said another campaign targeted at women.

So does(bad) publicity really help a brand. In the short term Yes but definitely not in a long term. Publicity builds a brand and advertising maintains it. Whoever said product is important in the end was totally wrong. It is not. ANFs products did not make it a trend or a fad(whichever way you look at). Infact they had inferior quality material but sold for four to five times the average price. Publicity did build ANF but people have just got fed up of the position that it has maintained. There will always be market for ANF, no matter how racist it appears. Simply because ANFs Target market will always be there. However it will suffer erosion, if it does not change its communication fast. People are fed up of the once ground breaking nude and curvy models in their ads. The brand image is tiring. If you own a couple of Abercrombie t shirts you do not want more.  How do you increase the purchase ? by reigniting the brand with the positioning it has taken for years. Yes it might not be ethical but thats the way to take the brand. Positioning it as a brand for all would kill it of its notoriety and the pride or ego the original users had. It has brilliantly gone to other segments like mid range and 22- 35 age range through other unrelated brand names like hollister and ruehl no 925 and abercrombie kids. The demise of Abercrombie and fitch would be the death of a dictator whose accomplices would soon fall. One reason why hollister is doing well, apart from being a mid range brand, is that people look it as the next level to reach the aspirational ANF tag. If that is not present then i would rather prefer going for some other brand.

abercrombie_top_logo1A reason i wrote about this brand was because it puzzled me. The fact that it has taken up an unethical (debatable) positioning and its made such a trap that anyone who tries giving a new image to the brand would kill it. Hence a dilemma of sustaining a brand, be it at the cost of ethics. Read more here.

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