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Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’s big fat mistake

Noel Hulsman

Not since Mitt Romney opted to very-publicly write off 47 per cent of the electorate, has a leading figure self-inflicted such a boneheaded injury to his efforts. And while it may be a stretch to call Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries a leading figure, certainly his brand is universally known; even more so now that his remarks about fat women and uncool kids have very prominently surfaced.

In fairness to Jeffries, the comments date back to a 2006 interview he gave with Salon, where he made clear distinctions between the various market segments that might gravitate to Abercrombie & Fitch’s latest lines. Every CEO thin slices his customer base, so there’s nothing unusual or untoward there. Even what came next would be fine, more or less, if it was confined to the executive boardroom.

What was decidedly not cool was saying in an interview that: “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely”. The people Jeffries deemed as not belonging  are the “not-so-cool” kids in school and overweight women. They conjured up associations that he didn’t want his brand to be any part of.

He explained that avoiding unattractive people was a philosophy that permeated “everything” at the company. “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that," he said in the interview.

Of course, Jeffries is entirely within his rights . If he wants his clothes to be the exclusive purview of the “attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends” that's his prerogative. The difficulty is that not everyone fits that mold, and even those who do, don’t want to be explicitly seen as aping that style.

As such, it doesn’t win the CEO of the company any benefit by openly antagonizing them. Michael Jordan knew that 20 years ago when he refused to support a very popular Democratic candidate for the Senate against an avowedly race-baiting Republican because he didn’t want to antagonize anyone who might buy his brand of Nike shoes. The line “Republicans buy sneakers too” became an albatross around Jordan’s neck for the rest of his career, but he didn’t dent his commercial appeal. Companies knew that Jordan understood how to move the merchandise.

Now that Jeffries comments have reemerged in a Business Insider article, the public backlash has yet to translate into a slap against the company's stock. As of midday Thursday, Abercromibe & Fitch was up 2.29 per cent to $53.68, rising more than 8.3 per cent since the BI story ran on Friday.

But Jeffries has surely learned some new insights on marketing. Lesson One might be that if 36 per cent of the people in your largest market are overweight, to say nothing of how many of them are potentially uncool, telling the world that you only want thin good-looking people as customers may be a career-ending call.