Michael Jeffries is no Gary Cooper by any stretch of the imagination. When Cooper rode into the sunset, he was leaving behind whatever victory he won for the “good guys,” albeit Hollywood style. As Michael Jeffries heads into the sunset, he will be leaving behind a once victorious A&F brand that he brilliantly developed over the past quarter century that is now in tatters, In the movie High Noon, in which Cooper starred, he knew the three killers were coming after him seeking revenge. Alert and ready, he single-handedly (actually helped somewhat by his wife) blew them away in a gun fight.
Michael Jeffries in the real world, was blinded by meteoric success, in my opinion, and did not see his adversaries gunning for his consumers as his brand drifted off course.
That was Jeffries’ Achilles heel. He drifted older along with his original young customers. He kept his focus on his aging customers without looking over his shoulder at their younger siblings, most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead wearing their older brothers’ and sisters’ brand. This positioning drift blindsided Jeffries. In my opinion, even if he had foreseen the need to pivot to the next generation, Jeffries would not have been able to successfully reposition the brand.
Essentially, Michael Jeffries was A&F and A&F was Michael Jeffries. Both were one. Therefore, for him to reposition the brand, it would be as impossible as changing his own personality or DNA. And so far, he has not been able to do so.
A Shared DNA
Michael Jeffries was largely vilified for his exclusionary attitude regarding the hiring of overweight people or anyone not befitting the brand’s image of sexy, young and cool, as he defined it. He also often used derisive language when questioned about his position. Yet he created and sustained a premier position in the youth market for about 25 years. He captured the zeitgeist of youth in that period and all but owned the entire space. He did so by excelling in a superior implementation of what we all learned about branding in Marketing 101. He created the DNA of A&F precisely to fit the sexy, young and cool image of the products, store layout and design; the nightclub experience; the catalogue; and even by hiring sexy, young and cool associates. He created a holistic, super powerful brand all the way through the entire marketing process. He relentlessly focused on all of it with no divergence, almost maniacally so, to the point of making abusive public comments about the consumers he specifically did not want in his stores – namely anybody who was not sexy, young and cool. So regardless of his rather questionable style and unnecessary derision of anybody not fitting that image, he was a strict disciplinarian when it came to protecting the image of his brand. Therefore, he could arguably be called a brilliant marketer, and I have often given him credit for that.
During the meteoric rise of this iconic brand, its loyal consumers also became an extension of the brand’s persona, proudly exhibiting the highly visible A&F logo, plastered on all of their products. This indelible, neurological connection with its consumers allowed the brand to be sold at full price, never promoted nor discounted.
The hue and cry, as well as the pushback from consumers over his behavior, is not why A&F is in trouble today. The brand got caught up in positioning drift. As their young core consumers grew older, A&F drifted along with them. A&F failed to see and understand that the younger brothers and sisters (now the emerging Millennial cohort) had no interest in copying what their older siblings were doing and wearing. A&F did not react quickly enough to pivot the brand. Therefore, A&F’s original core of sexy, young and cool customers grew out of A&F into Brooks Brothers and other brands. Their young siblings bypassed A&F altogether, heading into the world of fast fashion.
The Beginning of the End
A&F’s space began to close down as three dynamics converged:
- Competition kept advancing, including the other two ‘A’s’ (American Eagle and Aeropostale).
- The onset of the Great Recession.
- The early beginnings of the fashion trend shift among younger customers to the faster, newer and cheaper fashion churning brands like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, etc.
I don’t believe Jeffries connected these dots. He may have been aware of the growing competition in his original space, and he might have concluded that the combination of his direct competitors applying promotional pressure, along with the recession, was stealing customers who couldn’t afford A&F’s full prices. But I don’t think Jeffries recognized the fact that his original brand loyalists were growing out of the brand, and that A&F wasn’t attracting the younger brothers and sisters who were pouring into the fast fashion brands. Of course, further motivation for this trend shift among young consumers was the impact of the recession and the lure of cheaper fashion.
By the way, the same combination of positioning drift and the recession befell American Eagle and Aeropostale. This raises an interesting question. Will the hot fast fashion brands, beloved by the Millennials, get caught in positioning drift, and grow older with their core consumers, thus missing the desires of their younger siblings?
Regardless, Michael Jeffries is left holding the proverbial bag, apparently not totally understanding what hit him. And even if he did, it would be too late to the party. While his DNA is still intact, it is no longer synonymous with A&F, the now-struggling brand he brilliantly launched and once dominated its space.
As he rides into the sunset, will A&F’s brand DNA be able to reposition itself for a new post-Millennial consumer? Or is it too late?