The “Cool Kids” of Abercrombie Revisited

Did we give Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael S. Jeffries too much of a pass last week?

To refresh you on the facts, Jeffries came under fire for an old interview in which he said Abercrombie’s focus was squarely on the “cool kids” and that the company’s approach was “exclusionary” by design. Our take, should you care to reread it, was that Jeffries was wrong in terms of tact, but right on the business fundamentals. Peter Drucker, after all, believed strongly that segmenting and targeting specific customers—rather than trying to please everyone—was absolutely the right approach.

Then today, the latest newsletter from The Futures Company arrived, putting forth the idea that Jeffries was wrong not only in terms of tact, but also on the fundamentals. And that has us rethinking things a bit.

“Raised amid a ‘no bullying’ landscape and a culture that celebrates diversity, today’s Millennials (16-34) and EN.Gens (under 16) hold the ‘team dynamic’ as being central to their identities and simply won’t abide by messaging or imagery that contradicts it,” The Futures Company asserts. “For retailers and other marketers attempting to connect with Millennials and the emerging next generation of EN.Gens, updating the marketing playbook and adopting a more inclusive, accepting posture is strongly recommended.”

Photo credit: JP-Flanigan
Photo credit: JP-Flanigan

Now, last we checked, high school was still a pretty stratified and clique-y place, but values do evolve. So maybe The Futures Company is right. In 1984, for instance, Drucker, in his book The Frontiers of Management, observed a “sharp shift in values, attitudes and aspirations of a lot of educated young people” toward entrepreneurship. Tastes change.

The best way to see if all this suggests a new approach is by investigating the facts on the ground. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker cited the example of Melville Shoe. People from the company “spent weeks and months in shopping centers, looking at customers, listening to them, exploring their values,” Drucker wrote. “They studied the way young people shopped, what kind of environment they liked (do teenage boys and girls, for instance, shop in the same place for shoes or do they want to have separate stores?), and what they considered ‘value’ in the merchandise they bought.”

In sum, wrote Drucker, “for those genuinely willing to go out into the field, to look and to listen, changing demographics is both a highly productive and a highly dependable innovative opportunity.”

That, then, is the good news for Abercrombie haters: If today’s teens are really different, then Abercrombie & Fitch is ready to be knocked off its perch, and the next Melville Shoe (which doesn’t care how fat your feet are) is just waiting to happen.

What do you think: Are Millennials really post-exclusionary?