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Jun 29 2013

The Difference Between Targeting and Excluding Audiences

brand identity

Over the past two months, I’ve been fascinated by the outrage and controversy surrounding comments made by Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries. If you haven’t heard about this, I encourage you to look it up for full details. But here it is in a nutshell. Back in 2006, Jeffries made the following statement in a Salon article:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Understandably, people didn’t appreciate his straightforward, exclusionary branding philosophy. But, amidst all the name calling, protests and social movements, there is a lesson that is invaluable to all brand marketers: there is a fine line between targeting certain audiences and excluding others. Marketers who walk that line successfully have powerhouse brands.

People exclude brands, brands don’t exclude people.

Abercrombie and Fitch was very popular when I was in high school, back in the good old days before I was in marketing and could watch a simple commercial without analyzing it to death. Before I knew anything about brand identity, and before Jeffries made those outlandish comments, I knew that there were certain kids that wore A&F, and certain kids that didn’t. I was firmly in the camp that did not. Their prices were too high for my families modest income, their ads to racy for our conservative beliefs, and the strong scent of cologne too overwhelming. Plus, there was always that weird wall at every store entrance that made me feel like I was entering some sort of cultish cool kid club. The whole thing was just unnerving.

So, was I upset that I wasn’t one of the cool Abercrombie kids? Not at all. Why? Because that was a choice that I made. I didn’t feel that the brand excluded me, I felt that I made a personal choice not to shop there. There were other stores that I liked better and that better fit my budget, style and personality, so that’s where I shopped. I was the one excluding Abercrombie, not the other way around.

However, when Jeffries made those comments in the Salon article, he let the whole world in on the company secret. They were intentionally excluding people. It’s one thing to create a brand that targets certain people. It’s a whole different story when you start to exclude people.

The difference between targeting and excluding.

Think of it this way. As a company, your marketing is like an invitation to a party. You don’t have the money or resources to send invitations to everyone, so you do some market research, define a target audience, and create invitations that will appeal to that audience. However, if someone not in your target audience hears about your “party,” do you turn them away at the door because they don’t have an invite? Of course not. Not only is that rude, it’s bad business. You lose money and create bad press yourself. Plus, you lose out on a potentially beneficial business relationship. By letting members outside of the target audience in, you may discover a new audience that will help expand your business.

I feel that Nordstrom is a great example of a retailer who markets to a target audience, but not at the cost of excluding anyone. Their prices, high quality products and sophisticated brand make them most appealing to people in an upper socioeconomic class, whose high powered jobs and elite social lives demand a certain kind of wardrobe. However, what Nordstrom’s is most known for is their extraordinary customer service, which is extended to everyone who walks through the doors. Their elite product line, combined with accessible customer service, means they have created a core customer base that fits a certain profile and upholds a certain image, and yet they do not exclude customers who don’t fit their target profile. They are elite, but not elitist.

The Takeaway

One the one hand, Jeffries was right. If you appeal to everyone, you become uninteresting and don’t stand out from the competition. As a company, you must sell a unique product or service that targets the specific needs/desires of a specific audience. You must invest your limited marketing dollars into getting the attention of that specific target audience. When you do that, you will naturally attract the type of customers you want. You don’t need to talk about it, you don’t need to be rude or exclusionary. Just let the branding speak for itself. And so what if you happen to attract some people outside of your target audience? Like I said before, they may give you some fresh ideas for expanding your business and your audience.

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