“Good morning! My name is Mrs. Abercrombie. I am your sub for today!” I have had the pleasure of saying this phrase many times in the last year and several months, and it almost never fails to get a reaction. Having the name Abercrombie, as a substitute teacher in our local middle and high schools, has given me an almost instant rapport with most of my classes. I almost always get the, “Is that really your name?” question and the “Do you own the store?” question, but I have also been asked if I have any sons (yes, two), and one young man even asked if I would adopt him!
When I met my husband oh so many years ago, I was not familiar with the Abercrombie name. It took me a little while to be able to pronounce it correctly and a little longer to be able to spell it! Abercrombie was nowhere near the household name it has become today. It was a high-end sporting goods store at that time, which we had the opportunity to visit on a trip to Las Vegas shortly after we were married. I thought how fun it would be to visit and come home with a bag with our name on it. Unfortunately, we did not find anything in our price range; we were newlyweds at the time and could barely afford the trip, much less shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch!
Just as our kids became teenagers, Abercrombie and Fitch became the in thing for kids to wear. It was fun to be a teenager with our name – just like when I sub, it always got a reaction, and people did not forget who our kids were. I struggled a little with their marketing methods – the soft porn of their catalogs and displays at the stores were a bit much, and I joked about how I did not appreciate how they were ruining our good name. I did experience one other benefit, though, I did not have to spell our name nearly as much for people!
Recently, while subbing in a high school class, I got a little different reaction from a student when he learned my name. He obviously had heard the flap about the recently resurrected comments by Abercrombie CEO, Mike Jeffries, and actually seemed disconcerted that I would be stuck with the name Abercrombie. Jeffries, in an article in 2006, actually said that they market to the “cool kids,” and that there are many kids who are “just not cool enough” to wear Abercrombie. Based on the sizes offered for women at Abercrombie and Fitch, women larger than size 12 don’t make the cut.
I have worked part time with a marketing firm for a number of years, and I know there is nothing better in branding than “cool” and “exclusive.” If you can get your brand to be the “in thing” that everyone wants to buy and be seen using or wearing, well, that’s success that brings in the money. But for most brands, they want people to perceive that using that brand shows they are smart or cool. With Abercrombie, however, they want to seek out those kids who are considered cool, and leave out the ones who are not. As Jeffries said,
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.”
While most kids (and most of us adults) like being popular, part of the “in crowd,” they don’t necessarily like the idea that they are being exclusionary. After all, most of us have overweight friends. Some of us are overweight ourselves, unfortunately. In our hyper-tolerant society, labeling someone as “uncool” and singling them out for exclusion from the “cool” group just because of their size makes us uncomfortable. We like to think of ourselves as nicer than that. And we try to talk a pretty good game about not being focused on shallow, external attributes of people, such as their appearance…. but if we wear Abercrombie, then perhaps we *are* saying, “I look good enough to wear this and you don’t.” My student’s reaction in class that day tells me that kids don’t necessarily want to say that. That makes me feel pretty positive about the next generation. Being kind, for most kids, is better than being cool. In fact, being kind is pretty cool in and of itself. And Abercrombie’s CEO made his entire brand seem unkind, even mean, really.
However, as a member of the Abercrombie family, all this may mean that my name won’t be so much fun anymore. It’s been nice being associated with a cool clothing brand that everyone recognizes, but I don’t think it will be as much fun being associated with the “mean girls” of popular culture. Perhaps I will have to be satisfied with the classroom discussion it will generate about how the words we speak today can come back to haunt us, even six years later. Right, Mr. Jeffries?