Can Bad PR Be Good Marketing?

Abercrombie & Fitch stepped in some particularly bad PR recently when old comments by CEO Mike Jeffries resurfaced and took on a life of their own. In a wide-ranging 2006 interview with Salon.com, Jeffries spoke about the brand’s “exclusionary” marketing policy, explaining unapologetically that it won’t carry women’s garments in larger sizes because A&F doesn’t want fat people to wear its clothes. The comments themselves weren’t too surprising; after all, this is the retailer that paid reality TV’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino not to wear A&F (a blatant PR gimmick, but it worked).

But this time the CEO’s disdain for the “uncool” masses, i.e., anyone who isn’t young, slim, and sexy, caught up with him. Videographer Greg Karber decided to channel his scorn for Jeffries into action. He scoured thrift shops for donated A&F garments, then gave them to homeless people and videotaped the results, urging others to follow suit. #Fitchthehomeless went viral almost instantly. Few would argue that this is good PR for the Abercrombie brand.

And yet, despite its CEO’s insensitivity and arrogance, the brand’s turnaround has been based in part on one thing—its “exclusionary” marketing. Marketing exclusivity is a time-tested way to differentiate. Often it’s based on price, scarcity, alignment with boldfaced names, or all three. But exclusivity can also turn on brand values. Even when it risks alienating other market segments, it’s powerful. In fact, one pundit points out that the Abercrombie strategy takes a leaf from the Steve Jobs handbook. Forbes contributor Roger Dooley postulates that Apple’s early campaigns did something similar by reinforcing its appeal to creative hipster types while criticizing PC users as soulless corporate drones.

To me, the Apple comparison is a stretch, but a more analogous example may be Chick-fil-A. When its CEO, Dan Cathy, spoke out against marriage equality last summer, his words antagonized many observers and caused a cascade of negative buzz in social media communities. The comments sparked boycotts and even talk of zoning prohibitions on new Chick-fil-A stores.

Related Resource from B2CWebcast: PR Hacking: How Ideas Spread And What Marketers Need to Know

Yet, the uproar probably didn’t damage the brand. Chick-fil-A is well known for its evangelical Christian roots and values, and most loyal patrons are either Christians or agnostic—about its brand values, that is. They just want a good chicken sandwich. So although it was almost certainly not a proactive marketing move, you can make the argument that it moved the brand closer to its core customer.

The bottom line is this: no one likes runaway controversy. Jeffries has apologized for his remarks, just as Chick-fil-A’s Cathy ultimately agreed to leave his personal political and religious beliefs out of the company business. But the communication of clear brand values, backed by a passionate core following and marketed as exclusive to that core, can be a potent and defensible marketing strategy. Even when it amounts to bad PR.

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