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Ryanair’s CEO better at provocation than Abercrombie&Fitch’s CEO

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Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie&Fitch CEO, was under fire this summer about his declarations on excluding people from his targeted clientele. Back in 2006 he declared :

“We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

I was interviewed this summer by the French magazine l’Expansion to deal with those declarations and discuss the future of the brand.

I had a great discussion with the journaliste, Julie de la Brosse, from which one idea emerged: the concept of inclusive and exclusive communication

Not all provocative communication is alike

During the interview we were discussing whether or not Abercrombie&Fitch could be seen as a successful brand and which role the provocative declarations of A&F CEO were playing within the marketing strategy of the brand. We soon realized that there were other CEO’s taking radical positions and making also controversial declarations but it seemed that not all are alike in terms of how accepted they are.

Ryanair’s communication is inclusive; Abercrombie’s is exclusive

When thinking about provocative communication, besides A&F two other examples came to mind: Michael O’Leary and Michel-Edouard Leclerc.

You will probably agree that Michael O’Leary (the CEO of Ryanair) has a communication style which is cynical, provocative and subject to discussion. He recently threatened publicly Wallonia to reschedule flights in case they’d levy a tax of 3€ per passenger;

Michel-Edouard Leclerc, the CEO of the Leclerc supermarkets, is also a specialist of provocative declarations on the diminishing buying power of French consumers and in particular on how certain intermediaries take high margins to the disadvantage of end consumers.

Yet, the perception of these provocations is not alike. Whereas the CEO of Abercrombie explicitly excludes and denigrates the major part of the population, the CEO of Ryanair and Leclerc defend the interests of the crowds by fighting external pressures on prices (at least that’s what they want us to understand). In other words, one could say that there is in the first case an attempt to exclude, and in the second case an attempt to include or get associated to the interests of the majority of the people.

Advice for your marketing strategy

There is a lot to learn from the above. First of all the interview took place in early August and at that time the journalist challenged me on why I was considering Abercrombie&Fitch to be a declining and unsuccessful brand. At that time indeed the share price was not reflecting my statement of a declining company; later in August however several articles were published in newspapers which shared my viewpoint. You can for instance read here an article published on Aug. 22 on declining sales and a warning issued by Abercrombie on a further drop in Q3.

Of course the communication style of A&F CEO is not the explanation to this downturn. For me the real explanation is to be found in a marketing strategy that has stayed the same for years and which remained unchanged. I was the first one to be amazed by A&F efforts to offer a compelling customer experience. Even the best customer experiences need to evolve and change. Iit seems consumers get bored even by the most amazing things.

As far as Ryanair is concerned, O’Leary’s provocations seem not to have affected his company’s success. Ryanair remains the #1 and most profitable airline in Europe but traditional carriers are getting better at managing their costs and competing with low-cost companies. O’Leary should maybe look behind him and learn humility before it’s too late. The scandal on Ryanair’s security breaches brought out by Ryanair’s captains is maybe be the first real problem to threaten the airline’s super KPI’s of the last years.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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