Wednesday, November 7

Exhibiting Symptoms: Why American Apparel Was Singled Out

Last week, American Apparel was singled out for creating a controversial advertising campaign designed to capitalize on Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't the only one to run ads or sales tied to the storm. Urban Outfitters, Even Singer22, Owner Operator, and others all had Sandy ads.

But American Apparel was the only one that really received public pushback. Its creative was singled out out as being especially insensitive and even repugnant. Why? CEO Dov Charney blames the blogosphere. Specifically, he said, "about 25 of them" that decided to blow it up.

"Each blogger or Twitterer eggs on the other, and it becomes a big deal," he told Bloomberg. "The media is also interested in getting a rise out of readers."

Right or wrong, Charney misses the point. American Apparel wasn't singled out because the bloggers and media have it in for the company that frequently creates its own controversy. American Apparel was singled out because it has afflicted itself with an increasingly chronic case of brand weakness.

The advertisement on its own is a non-entity.

American Apparel targeted nine stricken states with an advertisement featuring the headline: "In case you're bored during the storm, just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout." The copy line isn't very avant-garde or even that creative. It's hardly as offensive as advocacy channels pretended last week. Charney is right he shouldn't lose sleep over the ad backlash.

What Charney ought to lose sleep over is over the long-term brand damage the company's publicity stunts and near-porn ad campaigns have done to the brand over the years. While people still buy the clothes, few respect the business. And this increasing lack of respect is starting to manifest itself into aversion.

If you want an analogy, think back to grade school. When the model student made an untimely joke, everybody still laughed. They might have even called it clever or cute. The class clown, on the other hand, was promptly sent to the dean's office. Nobody had to hear what they said because everything the class clown ever did or said was little more than another distraction. Just make it stop, classmates said.

Brands that are starved for attention flail about.

Companies with strong brands seldom struggle for it. They never need to rely on publicity stunts. Everyone gives them attention anyway. They don't even have to make news. They are the news.

Weak brands don't have that luxury. They try too hard and then become poster children for bad taste instead. It's a mistake that a manufacturer like American Apparel can't afford either. The ad that was intended to help boost sales in order to offset East Coast store closures did not help sales at all. If anything, it is likely the sales made them worse and could carry consequences for several months ahead.

Ironically, this is especially bad news for American Apparel because it had been enjoying a sales resurgence of sorts while being less controversial for the last few months. When American Apparel is quieter, people tend to remember one of its primary selling points: The manufacturer's clothing line is made in America. Made in America means something. "Sandy Sale" means something else.
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