Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie, active and loungewear brand, is seeing profits rise—while other teen retailers, its parent company included, struggle. The company considers it a payoff of being comfortable in its own skin: Through its ongoing AerieReal campaign launched in 2014, Aerie banned Photoshop and retouching from all marketing and brand imagery.
“Our customers have been responding positively to our brand message since we launched the campaign,” Aerie global president Jen Foyle told Refinery29. “As a result, we’ve seen sales and earnings rise rapidly.”
In 2015, Aerie earnings were up 20 percent, compared to American Eagle’s 7 percent. That year, according to the company, Aerie’s earned media impressions reached 4 billion. In the third quarter of 2016, Aerie earnings—which were posted on November 30—were up a comparable 21 percent, while American Eagle’s rose 2 percent. The company doesn’t break out specific sales figures for each brand.
Aerie’s success suggests that selling body positivity is good for the bottom line as well as brand perception. As a brand that has identified and latched on to what its customers care about, it has found itself on stable footing in a crowded retail market. Right now, a major point of discussion in the fashion industry is body diversity and inclusivity of size options outside the typical 0 to 4 most frequently seen in marketing campaigns, and Aerie is tapping into that conversation as a point of differentiation from the traditional lingerie brand (ahem, Victoria’s Secret).
While Aerie’s stance against Photoshopping and editing its models has resulted in plenty of positive press for the brand, what Aerie is doing is bigger than leaving a blemish in an ad image: It’s responding to its changing consumer. While other brands likely won’t be ditching the photo-editing tool en masse, they can still borrow a page from the AerieReal playbook.
“The real onus is to connect better with an audience — whatever that may require,” said Chris Gilbert, a senior social strategist at the New York agency Kettle. “Brands that have inclusivity at the core of their positioning will be seeing that pay off.”
The aspirational paradox
Customers have increasingly become the center of attention at fashion brands that were once able to dictate trends and seasons to their audiences. But this shift to consumer-centric brand operations clashes with the aspirational “dream” the fashion industry, particularly luxury fashion, is conditioned to sell.
“Cutting Photoshop and retouching is not a mainstream approach,” said Rony Zeidan, founder of the agency RO NY. “Fashion is selling aspirational images, so enhancing reality is considered okay. It’s not necessarily seen as a manipulation if it’s a segue into a dreamscape of some sort.”
Traditional fashion marketing, whether it comes to depicting the so-called dream or deciphering data, still prevails. Brands are holding on to the idea that the aspirational is what drives dollars, especially for luxury brands–even as social media pushes a more democratic mindset, said Gilbert.
“The democratic social space and the traditional thinking in fashion have created a bit of a divide between ideals,” he said. “We’ll see that shifting more as millennials move into leadership positions. They run their brands differently than more mature brands, but we’re going to see a changing of the guard.”
The different interpretations of ‘inclusivity’
Aerie, which caters to a demographic that leans toward young women in their teens and early 20s, moved to not retouching its models after listening to conversations on social media and realizing their younger consumers wanted their brands to be a reflection of themselves, according to Aerie.
Online fashion retailer Modcloth, which sells size-inclusive collections, uses “real people” in most of their campaigns, rather than models. When they do feature models, they’re size-diverse and not Photoshopped. Susan Gregg Koger, ModCloth’s co-founder and chief creative officer, said that the brand did a survey in 2014 of 1,500 U.S. women. They found that 67 percent would buy more from a company that uses limited amounts of retouching and Photoshop.
“It’s still a relatively uncommon practice in the industry,” said Kroger. “I think it does set our brand apart visually.”
For aspirational brands, the “realness” approach may not work. But that’s not the only way to identify with customers.
“The tension and the reason that these true aspirational brands aren’t moving toward ‘realness’ is that it’s counterintuitive to the category that they’ve built,” said Constance DeCherney, director of strategy at the agency TDA_Boulder. “But the spectrum of inclusion is widening as brands are figuring out what their customers want to see reflected back. That might mean different ages or backgrounds.”
Ultimately, while brands still subscribe to some version of sameness, brands who successfully push back will be celebrated, whether that means hiring models over the age of 30 or declining to edit out flaws, said DeCherney.
Pushing back–for profit
For now, the idea of embracing flaws and putting them on display is still controversial enough in fashion to catch attention.
“Specifically in beauty and fashion, the category is built on aspiration and a certain set of ideals that we as women aspire to achieve. The momentum toward this realness is a reaction to those standards,” said DeCherney.
Still, marketing efforts that purport to be inclusive have to be wary of exploiting positive causes for profit. While it’s seen success, Aerie has come under fire for casting plus-size models while not selling plus-size clothing in stores itself. By pegging its AerieReal platform as a “celebration of every body type” — Foyle’s words — Aerie’s found differentiation while skirting the investment of a full plus-size line (its bras top out at size 40C). For all intents and purposes, it works.
“What were seeing isn’t so much that brands are having a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” said Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Movement blog. “When it comes to body positivity, it’s brands seeing a marketing opportunity and ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.”