As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary, ‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’, today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.
In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.
The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?
As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.
While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.
While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.
As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.
In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.
For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!
The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:
Since it debuted on 17 September, our social media feeds have been dominated by Netflix’s South Korean offering – Squid Game. The drama is the latest in an expanding wave of international cinema and TV series on the site and tells the story of 456 people who are desperately competing in a series of deadly games with the hope of paying off their debts.
Despite the Korean dialogue and extreme violence, the show has become the most successful launch in Netflix’s history, with 111 million account holders tuning in during its first month on the site. These are the kind of numbers that traditional network television executives dream of; all from a foreign-language TV show, the likes of which have in the past failed to succeed in Anglophone markets. Before the advent of streaming, foreign-language TV was pushed to the fringes of British and American media, only found by those desperately seeking it out.
Now, giants like Netflix and HBO Max actively promote their foreign-language offering. Netflix has now made series in 62 different languages, which begs the question, is language the same barrier that it once was?
Travelling across the globe, all without leaving your living room
The cultural zeitgeist in English-speaking countries has long been dominated by English-speaking film and television, with a lack of willingness to engage with foreign-language media. But, as streaming services become increasingly popular, giving viewers access to content from a broader range of sources, so does foreign-language content. Of Netflix’s top ten most-streamed shows, 40% were either shot or conceptualised in a country where English is not the dominant language. If we narrow this list down to the top three, two of the three have no English dialogue.
This multinational trend is not limited to the world of Netflix streaming. Some argue that South Korea has become a frontline contributor to global culture in recent years – all because of K-pop. And it certainly isn’t just Korean culture which is taking over the airwaves; Italian rock band Maneskin shot to fame earlier this year when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, amassing nearly 18 million listeners in the month following their win.
It would be remiss to think that the growing popularity of these non-Anglophone cultural phenomena has not, in part, been motivated by a global pandemic which forced us all to slow down, stop travelling, and try new things from the comfort of our own homes. People are choosing to travel without ever packing a suitcase, experiencing new cultures through their TV screens.
This is the kind of lifestyle change which brings about the kind of streaming figures produced by Squid Game.
What can comms professionals learn from Squid Game?
Communications and PR professionals can and should learn a lot from the increasing national and linguistic diversity we’re experiencing in our everyday lives. But tread carefully; consider what is appropriate from the original story and what needs to be adapted to fit with your target country’s culture.
Squid Game is a prime example of the impact of cultural and linguistic nuances when a piece is consumed in multiple different countries. It appeals to audiences around the globe due to its analysis of the anxieties of modern life and its commentary on social inequalities. These themes will undoubtedly mean even more to a South Korean audience however, who are living through a personal debt crisis which has risen in recent years to over 100% of its GDP, famously also documented in the 2020 Oscar-winning film Parasite. Moreover, the game central to Squid Game’s plot is based upon creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s favourite childhood playground game, which was mostly limited to Korea. Consequently, whilst Squid Game does not need to be adapted in any way for global viewers to understand it, there are certain nuances that are simply lost on many audiences.
Making culturally rich (and culturally sensitive) campaigns
When it comes to communications campaigns, there are times when you can succeed with a story like Squid Game, which has specific national cultural nuances. Perhaps it simply doesn’t make sense to make cultural adaptations, because the story is just fundamentally South Korean, or German, or whatever it may be. In this case, you are assuming (based upon extensive research) that your target audience has a significant enough sensitivity to the original culture for the story to not be lost on them. This is absolutely possible and requires in-depth prior research to ensure that no part of the story will be lost in translation, or even appear appropriated, making sure to touch bases with those in both your original and target country.
More often though, campaigns need to be contextually adapted to suit different regions. We’ve all heard of Google Translate fails, such as the PR disaster caused by Amazon’s errors in cultural sensitivity when first launching in the Nordics. These errors are not only embarrassing but can cause deep harm to a business’ relationship with the people of that region and affect your global reputation. Comms professionals must learn from locals and truly understand a region’s nuances before attempting to launch campaigns there.
For example, when Google Chrome launched in Thailand, local insight revealed that Thai consumers enjoy traditional storytelling. So, when the global giant brought its browser to the country it created an interactive visualisation experiment designed to showcase the browser through the Ramakien ancient Sanskrit epic tale. During the campaign there was a 53% increase in usage, which demonstrates the importance of developing unique, local campaigns.
In individual cases, it is up to you to do your research and decide what linguistic and cultural adaptations (if any) are necessary. We can certainly learn from different regions, but we shouldn’t just take from them. As South-Korean Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho famously said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Perhaps for the world of PR and comms, we can adapt this to say, “Once you overcome the barrier of your nation’s borders, you will be introduced to so many more amazing audiences.”
Thinking of launching a comms campaign in Europe? Let us help you out with navigating national nuances and read our guide to Pan-European comms here.
There are many types of PR disasters, but by far the worst is when you push out a campaign based on an idea that really hasn’t been thought through. Pepsi was under fire this month for its advert featuring Kendall Jenner brokering peace between protestors and police using Pepsi. Although the sentiment of unity, peace and understanding was good, the resulting advert “missed the mark” as Pepsi quite rightly put it.
Pepsi’s not the first or the last company to have a bad idea. But unfortunately for companies like Pepsi, there are few places to hide once the bad idea is out there and the backlash starts to flood the internet. Kudos to Pepsi for acknowledging its mistake – and if you want more on handling a crisis, do read this piece by our CEO Claire – but I ask, how could Pepsi have avoided this whole disaster in the first place? Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes!
For me the answer is two-fold: Diversity and the power to speak up.
Our client, Julie Chakraverty, is the founder of Rungway, which is a platform that helps people give and get help on work life questions. Julie is a huge advocate of diversity and is often speaking at events that can help companies develop a more diverse workforce. A story she told at one of these events caught my attention and got me thinking quite differently. She said that when you’re explaining an idea to a friend or someone from a similar background, you don’t have to explain yourself too much because they understand your context. But if you’re explaining something in a situation without likeminded people or people of a similar demographic around, you’ll often need to explain your thinking a lot more to justify it. It’s this dialogue that is hugely beneficial as it can often raise new views and opinions that can strengthen and/or develop an idea a lot further. Or – in this case, help you see that the idea isn’t a great one.
Diversity in any industry and in any department is a great thing – and it’s on the agenda for everyone. In marketing and PR specifically, the winners will be those who push for diversity more aggressively because their workforce will be all the more powerful.
That said, the other side of the coin is having the power to speak up. Having a room full of people with diverse views and backgrounds is great, but you need to give them the power to use their voice.
In a Ted Talk by Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, I learnt about what makes people feel comfortable about speaking up. Adam talks about two motivators that compel us to speak up: having expertise, and having social support and allies. But more interestingly, we all have a range of ‘acceptable behaviours’ based on our experience. The wider the range, the more likely we speak up. This range is also not fixed, it expands and narrows based on context. Adam states that the biggest influence on that range is the individual’s power within the group. When someone has lots of power, the range widens.
And why am I telling you this? It’s because this background helps you understand how to create an environment that encourages everyone to have a voice.
In Adam’s Ted Talk he talks about ways to increase people’s power. He lists methods such as:
By even pushing just one of the behaviours above, you’re more likely to have people speak out during meetings and sessions meant to drive ideas.
For marketers and communication professionals, a bad idea can cause huge damage to a brand’s reputation, putting the future of the company at risk. Pushing for diversity and creating the right environment gives brands a better chance at not ending up in Pepsi’s red-faced position. But also, we – the public – will get better and more thought-provoking ideas, improving the overall standard of publicity, advertising and communications across the industry.
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