Thursday, 13 August 2009

Living the Brand at Abercrombie & Fitch

On what has turned out to be a very long journey back from Chicago to Scotland, I found myself killing time in a New Jersey mall after an unplanned ovenight stop at Newark Airport. I chanced to go into Abercrombie and Fitch's store, by far the most popular in the whole mall as far as I could tell. For those less familiar with fashion retailing, A&F is a top casual luxury American brand popular with young college students, so I'm not really sure what I was doing in there. Just a few hours later, I was amused and interested to read in the airport lounge at Newark a BBC news a story about A&F in London, which has just been found wanting in its application of its employer brand. A young, highly qualified woman, Riam Dean, had been 'forced to work in the stockroom after wearing a cardigan to cover her prosthetic arm'. The industrial tribunal which heard her case 'is satisfied the reason for the claimant's dismissal was her breach of the 'look policy' in wearing a cardigan. Throughout the hearing A & F's London flagship store management claimed they had an inclusive diverity policy.

A couple of points emerge from this case. The first is just how important decisions taken by a local management team can impact on a brand. This item was number three in the national UK news, and may result, like the charges levelled against the Gap and Nike a number of years ago, in costing this company very dearly in terms of reputational capital. The second, slightly more subtle point, is that it illustrates the problems local managers have in interpreting the different strategic logics discussed in previous posts. I can well imagine an agonised discussion/debate taking place either in the head of the manager who took the decision to put the girl in the stockroom, or maybe between a group of managers/ supervisors in the store over the logic of distinctiveness (most fashion brands feel the need to have their staff 'live the brand' in terms of their appearance) and the logic of legitimacy.

At 3.00 am this morning my colleagues who were also stuck in the airport with me (Continental Airlines certainly did not live up to its brand claim for satisfied customers) were debating the merits of sustainable management and corporate social responsibility. Our sleepy conclusions were that new standards of legitimacy will probably win in the end in spite of the edicts of Milton Friedmann on the unitary role of business, forcing firms to become more ethical in their approach to doing business. Not easy to square, but firms like A & F had better eat some humble pie to recover their reputation in the UK at least for being a 'cool brand'.

No comments: