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The internet, and particularly social media, has changed that. Suddenly, the hierarchy of who speaks and to whom in the brand-consumer relationship has shifted beneath the feet of corporate behemoths such as L Brands, and now frustrated women can launch negative mainstream press cycles on their own. For generations, clothing and personal-care marketing could dictate how American women should look without any pretense of kindness. Now, faced with the unfiltered reactions of their customers for the first time, most of those same brands have decided to make nice. Where they could once profit by making women feel worse, the money now is in promising them a way to feel better.
Victoria’s Secret took the old strategy to its logical extreme. It made superstars out of an army of wing-clad Angels, all perfectly thin, busty, and long-legged in the same impossible way. For years, Victoria’s Secret has been the brand equivalent of the stereotypical cool-girls’ table in a high-school cafeteria: hot, unfriendly, and definitely not interested in bolstering your self-worth. And as in a teen movie, the less popular brands took as many cues as possible from the queen bee.
Victoria’s Secret is still doing things much as it did in the 2000s, and the approach is showing its age. Last month, its CEO, Jan Singer, resigned. The company also announced that it was reducing its annual dividend by 50 percent, and L Brands stock has lost more than half its value from its peak in early 2016. In addition, the brand has weathered a series of public controversies over the past few years, including those centered on the use of white models wearing traditional indigenous headdresses to sell lingerie, its ad campaign about the “perfect body,” and executives’ offensive comments about women who don’t fit the brand’s aesthetic ideal.
Victoria’s Secret’s narrow vision of femininity is certainly part of its problem, as are the decline of American malls and the burgeoning popularity of online competitors such as Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty and ThirdLove. But lots of people still think the brand’s look is sexy and aspirational, and many still want to try on bras in person. The bigger problem for the brand might be that now, companies clamor to be women’s friends. They post memes on Instagram, they expand their size ranges ever so slightly, they associate themselves with a more comfortable, livable idea of beauty. That so many of Victoria’s Secret’s direct and indirect competitors have abandoned the tone they cribbed from the company makes its unfriendliness all the more clear. Victoria’s Secret is among the last of the mean girls.
The most recent spate of negative attention for the company came after an interview that Victoria’s Secret’s longtime chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, and the executive vice president for public relations, Monica Mitro, gave to Vogue magazine. When asked about those who press Victoria’s Secret on body diversity, Razek said, “It’s like, “Why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show?’ No. No, I don’t think we should. ‘Well, why not?’ Because the show is a fantasy.” As recently as a few years ago, those remarks probably wouldn’t have made it into mainstream news cycles for a variety of reasons, not least of which because for most of modern consumer history, it was perfectly fine for brands to declare their intent to serve only a certain subset of women that they had deemed arbitrarily superior.