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The right word, in the right place.

The Right Word

How to Lose your Message

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 11:10 PM

By KAREN SAMPSON HOFFMAN


What is your message?

You have a brand. And you have something important you want to convey to others or you want to persuade others to buy, be it a product or a service. So, you have a message: Ours is the best because we meet your need or your perception. Buy ours and we will reinforce your self-image and we will reward you for it.

Holding onto that message – why your product or service is the best and worthy of your customer’s money – becomes difficult in a media-saturated world. What companies are finding the most difficult is holding onto their message when faced with social media because every media user is also an editor.

The other problem is holding onto your message when you aren’t even clear about the message or the effect it has on your customer base.

Recently, the chairman and CEO of Ambercrombie & Fitch Michael S. Jeffries put himself and the popular brand in some hot water:

As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

“[W]e want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”  [The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch. Salon.com. Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006]

Mr. Jeffries message was: We are brand of the hot, popular, cool kids. Buy our clothes and you show the world you’re hot, popular and cool.

Wow, did he lose control of his message.

Even though the article was seven-years-old, a forceful counter message took over:


 

Mr. Jefferies’ message was no longer “we’ve got the cool, skinny kids.” It had become “we’re the snotty bullies that made your life miserable in high school.” In one fell swoop, with a an awesome photo shoot mimiking Amercrombie & Fitch’s own promotion, he lost control of his company’s message.

“The juxtaposition of uncommonly paired bodies is visually jarring, and, even though I wish it didn’t, it causes viewers to feel uncomfortable,” Jes Baker of TheMilitantBaker.com wrote to Mr. Jefferies in an open letter on her blog site. “This is largely attributed to companies like yours that perpetuate the thought that fat women are not beautiful. This is inaccurate, but if someone were to look through your infamous catalog, they wouldn't believe me.

“I'm sure you didn't intend for this to be the outcome, but in many ways you're kind of brilliant. Not only are you a marketing genius (brand exclusivity really is a profitable move) but you also accidentally created an opportunity to challenge our current social construct.” (emphasis added)

This wasn’t the opportunity Mr. Jefferies was looking for. But it was an opportunity for Ms. Baker to take his message and turn it around and make it something else: Let’s talk about what is “cool” and “hot” and how bodies that are bigger are also “cool” and “hot.” Let’s be people who see beauty in shapes other than “skinny.” Let’s not be what Ambercombie & Fitch have to offer. Popular kids come in all shapes, and you know what else? The cute boy does fall for the heavy girl.

Ms. Baker’s message was pretty clear: You’re wrong and I have the pictures to prove it.

Where does this example take us now? Think through your message and your audience first. You can alienate with one sentence the very people who would drive your message the furthest. And you can have your message pulled out from you in one photograph.

Speak boldly and clearly. But also, listen to what you are saying. Your audience is listening and their perspective will change the message before you’re done talking.

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