victoria's secret brand

Passikoff: Victoria’s Secret is a Study in Market Tone-Deafness

Victoria’s Secret brand loyalty is down. The brand needs a new flight path for the evolving retail atmosphere, or it will continue to pay the price.

The Victoria’s Secret brand loyalty fall coincides with dramatic shifts in category dynamics that began in 2015.

A couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to turn around the brand, Victoria’s Secret announced they were shedding their Angel wings and burning their Fantasy Bras. The brand is trading supermodels known for pulchritude and proportions for women known for proficiency and brainpower.

According to Martin Waters, appointed CEO of the brand in February, they were, “too slow to respond” to the trifecta of “isms” – sexism, sizeism, and ageism. You think? All that would be perfectly accurate but fails to give the full picture of where the brand stands. As an author friend of mine once said, “It’s like describing the planet Jupiter as being bigger than a duck!” No, folks, they’ve got trouble in lingerie-city, with a capital T, which rhymes with “absentee” and that stands for customers.

Victoria’s Secret, perennially #1 or #2 in the Apparel Retail category in our Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI), dropped to #4 in 2016, #6 in 2017, and #10 in 2018. In 2019 it sank to last place in our ranking, #19, where it has remained ever since. Their attempt to reinvent themselves comes with a healthy serving of rationalization and revisionist history.

Victoria’s Secret’s falling brand loyalty coincides with dramatic shifts in category dynamics that began in 2015. It’s easy to say “It’s all about what men wanted,” and but that’s not entirely true. Their problems were bigger than a duck, but they brought a lot of this on themselves. They ignored the consumer and ignored the category. They thought they had the world on a G-string, and weren’t going to change. Now they’re being forced to.

The resignation of Jan Singer, CEO of Victoria’s Secret lingerie, after her CMO made awkward statements about transgender and plus-size models not representing the “fantasy” that is supposed to be Victoria’s Secret didn’t help. That was 2018. That statement continued to be problematic. There were category warning signs long before recently-revealed associations with Jeffrey Epstein.

So the brand now vows to become an advocate for female empowerment, but that inclusiveness had become a hot-button issue for apparel brands a half-decade ago. The brand essentially chose to ignore that. Switching to plus-sized or trans models may be a remedy for category changes but, according to consumers, brand problems aren’t as easily addressed by switching models.

As the brand has gone off-message and off-course, so have sales. Customer loyalty metrics are leading-indicators of consumer behavior. Victoria’s Secret brand loyalty is down. The brand needs a new flight path for the evolving retail atmosphere, or it will continue to pay the price. It already has. Their loyalty ratings can’t get any lower, but their sales can. Currently they’re down nearly $2 billion.

But political polarization, rising consumer tribalism, and recent, fervent social activism have changed the face of brand engagement and consumer loyalty dramatically in all product categories. More importantly, the drivers of loyalty – never static or inert – have shifted again, while Victoria’s Secret took their eye off both the brand and the consumer. And then there’s the fact that the brand itself has a really, really entrenched image. Shifting from fantasy and scanty panties to authenticity and self-actualization sounds good as a strategy, but isn’t going to be so easy for this brand to execute. And by “execute” we mean “execute successfully.”

Loyalty evaluations always tell what consumers think, how they feel, and how they will behave in the marketplace. Different category drivers of loyalty have shown up throughout the retail sector, but especially in the lingerie category. Those drivers quite literally identify the shape and substance of what consumers really want. Victoria’s Secret brand was positioned as the exemplar of the female body as erotic object. CEO. Winters was quoted, “We need to stop being about what men want.” But that’s an easy-answer. Victoria’s Secret fulfilled a fantasy of sex and glamour for both men and women. But that was then. And by “then” we mean 2013 or 2014. Brands really need to have systems in place that predict changes in category values and provide early-warning systems for brands so they can act in a timely manner.

Sure, consumers want more buzz about brands and more ways to access them today. But even 8 years ago it was clear that options in clothing structure had become more influential than self-image. This was true for constructed, unconstructed, and sporty fits. Values have been migrating for some time, but Victoria’s Secret missed them. Consumers were looking for comfort – in both clothing fit and how the brand fit their body image, which connects directly to one’s self-esteem and wallet. There’s something ultra-personal about lingerie. So figuratively hanging up a sign reading “PERFECT BODIES ONLY!” was simultaneously self-indulgent and offensive. And shortsighted.

Then, there’s consumers’ expectations for more natural looks. Beginning in 2014, younger consumers expressed a yen for more realistic representations and underwear that was more crop top than bralette. Not so much fantasy as much as relatable beauty. It appears in today’s lingerie apparel category, more is more.

The Victoria’s Secret brand lost its mojo while there was a surge in retailing’s boom and the lingerie sector’s success. Up and comers on Brand Keys CLEI list include: Aerie, True & Co., Lively, Journelle, and Third Love. Even GAP and J. Crew looked to cash in on changing customer values and a changing lingerie market.

Ultimately it comes down to apparel marketers identifying the true shape of the category ideal – not from their own perspectives, but from those of their consumers’. Lingerie plays a big part in how women carry themselves, but now it’s going to be up to women to determine whether they want to carry the Victoria’s Secret brand.

And any retailer that thinks they can ignore what women expect is living in a fantasy world!

Robert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.

Photo by Uliana Kopanytsia on Unsplash.

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