The gloves are off: the rise of anti-marketing

Recent events in the US have brought Abercrombie & Fitch’s exclusionist approach to targeting back into the public eye. Californian writer Greg Karber was so incensed by Abercrombie chief executive Mike Jeffries’ comments about how his brand exclusively focuses on the young, the thin and the popular that he decided to take action.

Mark Ritson

Where other righteous citizens before him simply denounced A&F on social media to their - let’s be honest here - old and uncool friends, Karber did something far more radical. He used anti-marketing.

Karber purchased as much old Abercrombie clothing as he could from thrift stores and then gave all of it away to the homeless. Using the hashtag #FitchTheHomeless and a video posted on YouTube Karber then promoted the practice globally. So far, more than 7 million people have watched his YouTube video.

It’s easy to miss just how smart this move really is. Karber has reviewed the targeting strategy of A&F and then attempted to destroy it by using the exact opposite marketing approach. If Abercrombie builds its brand by associating with only the young, the thin and the popular, then anti-marketing will break its brand by associating it with the old, the unwanted and the lost. Let’s skip the whole debate about whether Karber is little better than Jeffries because he is now objectifying the homeless and reinforcing their status as society’s unwanted people - I am already conflicted enough with Abercrombie. Stay focused on anti-marketing.

Anti-marketing happens when any traditional marketing tactic is used to weaken brand equity and thus reduce a brand’s overall appeal.

It’s a peculiar idea. We usually assume that the tools of marketing will only be used in the service of brand building. But what about when equally clever marketing strategies are applied to break a brand? Anti-marketing is the best term for it and it transpires that our discipline is just as powerful when driven in reverse.

In 2001, when Greenpeace began a major campaign to increase the focus on how Exxon Mobil was delaying and disrupting the Kyoto agreement on climate change, it opted for anti-marketing. Rather than create a message of its own, Greenpeace took ESSO’s familiar blue and red logo and re-presented it with dollar signs, replacing the name ESSO with the more startling E$$O.

parody-of-esso-logo

Why stop at logos? We all know they are a relatively weak way to build brands. Ergo, they are hardly likely to do significant damage when used as part of an anti-marketing campaign. Better to use a stronger approach, like product placement.

Most marketers know that Ford paid millions to the producers of the Bond movies to promote its vehicles in recent years. It was common knowledge that the company paid north of £20m to promote its marques - which at the time included Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar - in the film Die Another Day.

But was it a coincidence that the five cars that appeared in the film that weren’t produced by Ford were all older models and that all met an untimely end during the film? Two Ferraris, a Porsche 911, a Mercedes SL and a Lamborghini Diablo were either destroyed, damaged or - and this might be a strong clue that anti-marketing was afoot- dropped out of the back of a plane at 30,000 feet.

How about using celebrity endorsement in an anti-marketing campaign? Last year there were rumours that the star of MTV show Jersey Shore, Snooki, (famed for throwing up in her handbags) was being sent luxury branded bags. But celebrity blogs were abuzz with the suggestion that the bags in question were being sent by competitor companies in a blatant attempt to use bad celebrity association to cause their rivals reputational harm.

Even your own employees and your service model can be used in the cause of anti-marketing. In one of the first academic studies of its kind, authors Elaine Wallace and Leslie de Chernatony recently published a paper in the journal of Product and Brand Management in which they identified “service brand sabotage” a significant issue for retail banks. Using more than 400 interviews with banking employees they identify employee fear, overwork and compliance demands as factors that drive this anti-marketing phenomenon.

Nothing is sacred in the parallel universe of anti-marketing. Black is white. Up is down. And brands are very much for the breaking as well as building.

Readers' comments (3)

  • This article takes me back to one of my favourite articles from you, Mark. We were in 2010 and you were writing a daring speech about the difference between Marketing and Sales that I still applaud today (the world has not understood yet, unfortunately but it was a good try). In this article you were also mentioning Abercrombie & Fitch, saying:

    “Show me a well-managed, successful brand and I will show you a company actively restricting sales from certain segments. Abercrombie & Fitch makes an XL size that most over 30s can’t get into with a blowtorch (trust me, I know)”

    I agree that brand identity relies on a clever segmentation strategy and the ability to avoid unwanted sales. I learnt recently that Hermès has stopped the production of their famous H belt after “suburban riff raff gangs” had adopted the item as their latest gimmick. It makes sense to segment a market, it is part of the positioning as well and I have no problem with this. My issue with A&F is that they are pushing it too far in 2013 and on twisted criterion, flirting with the promotion of eugenics. What next?? A neo Nazi brand? A brand that will target only Aryans? A brand that will reject the physically disabled, the mentally vulnerable, etc? I think we all ought to be shocked at those practices and I salute Karber's initiative. Not that marketing has some meaningfulness for humanity. No, of course not. Marketing builds and circulates messages mainly for commercial purposes. However, A&F are just going against the sense of History and progress. A perceived "cool brand" that makes great Marketing is Adidas. They are endorsing the Olympic games, sports champions, rock stars like Korn, they are worn by the “suburban riff raff gangs” but also by Starsky and Hutch, marijuana smokers and great athletes and they have become cult as Levis use to be with their famous 501 jeans in the 90’s. This is being cool and cult without fascist practices that only show strategic mediocrity. Is it OK today to say “I only want young, slim and pretty people to wear my tees”? Technically it is, because in the occidental world, one has the right to say whatever one wants, and it is a good thing; but don’t get surprised at the backdraft it generates as the concept behind stinks.

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  • A very clever move, indeed.

    As much as strong brands generally rely on selective (and, by extension, exclusive) targeting, it's a risky game when played with such a cavalier approach to the ethical implications.

    Modern marketers are increasingly learning about the perils of living by the sword.

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  • A great read

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