Keeping it real

This week Victoria’s Secret held its annual fashion show festoon with big name celebrities, pop performances and lots of press coverage. A glitzy moment for a brand that is reported to be struggling. But is an event like this helping or hindering the Victoria’s Secret brand to connect with its audience and help it return to growth?

The event took place Thursday night on Pier 94 on the Far West Side of New York, with a video featuring some of its most famous models talking about how doing the show made them feel “successful,” “powerful,” “empowered,” “strong.” About how “we can be sexy for ourselves and who we want to be, not who a man wants us to be.” It even set the opening lineup to the song “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” performed by the soul singer Leela James. Indications the brand is shifting it’s narrative a little bit.

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Other signs of the brand trying to be culturally relevant saw a more diverse set of models grace the catwalk, at least in terms of ethnicity and skin color with starts such as Winne Harlow featuring. However, none of the girls were truly ‘plus size’ and the glitz of it all presented an image of a materialistic tone that is arguably a dated format.

Having said that the show continues to be hugely popular with 1.6 billion people viewing it last year, of which 70 percent were women. It had 220 billion press and social media impressions. Airing on Dec 2 this year on ABC, this behemoth has still got it when it comes to grabbing attention in media terms.

But a big media spectacle executed in this way doesn’t seem to have been helping the brand translate attention into sales and effectively connect with the audience to buy. The show last year was quite similar and in July 2018 they reported a 1% decline in comparable sales in the five weeks ended July 7. That drop extended a streak of mostly declining comparable sales the chain has reported since 2016. Worse yet, when stripping out online and other direct sales, store-only comparable sales fell 6%.

In a consumer survey that Wells Fargo Securities outlined in a recent note to clients, 48% of Victoria’s Secret shoppers said they had shopped there less in the past year. In fact, 68% of consumers who had shopped less said they like the brand less than they used to, and 60% said they think the brand feels “forced” or “fake.”

The Wells Fargo analysts noted that popular culture now focuses more on authenticity and body positivity, a trend that competitors like Aerie have capitalized on.

While still the No. 1 U.S. lingerie brand, Victoria’s Secret has seen its share of the market slip by 2 percentage points, to 28.8%, over the past five years through 2017, compared with the 0.4 percentage point gain, to 2.3%, that Aerie posted over the same period, according to Euromonitor.

Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie brand, is still small compared to VS but this story is something big mass brands are facing across categories today. Smaller players stepping out of the norms, engaging differently and better connecting with audience groups. Here Aerie seem to be better capturing the hearts of young women by using relatable models.

It stopped retouching images in 2014. Its #AerieREAL campaign celebrates women as they are. Check out the difference in tone and approach of these images versus that of the VS show.

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This contrast seems to be paying off. Since removing altered pictures from its advertising, Aerie has seen a huge payoff. Sales skyrocketed a whopping 26% in the most recent quarter.

RBC Capital Markets wrote in a note that parent company American Eagle anticipates Aerie sales will reach $500 million in the coming years. That’s still small compared to Victoria’s Secret’s $6.1 billion store sales, but the rapid and swift growth is making it a viable competitor.

I have experience first-hand of how it is difficult to evolve large brands that have built success in doing things a certain way working at Unilever and Avon. I don’t doubt the challenge that the Victoria’s Secret team have. And I am pretty sure the team there are conscious of all of this. The fact remains though that Victoria’s Secret needs to work out how to evolve its approach to the world. The brand is still projecting an idea of sexy rooted in the pinup era, when women and their bodies were defined by the eye of others, and the perfect ideals of the past. That era has past and new players are acting fast to keep it real and better respond to today’s culture. Can Victoria’s Secret keep up? Time will tell, and I really hope they can.

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