At October’s BeautyCon NYC, a convention for makeup and lifestyle brands, Bethany Mota walked on stage to pure pandemonium. The thousands of girls in attendance, mostly in their pre- to mid-teens, erupted in screams as their favorite YouTube star greeted them. Some were in tears. During the Q&A session of her keynote speech, one fan used her chance with the microphone in front of her to sputter out: “I just love you so much!”
Mota appeared at BeautyCon in part to promote her new partnership with event sponsor Aéropostale, the teen mall retailer hoping to revive its expiring brand and grasping at an exclusive design partnership with Mota, who has 10 million subscribers on YouTube and 5.6 million followers on Instagram, to do so.
It didn’t work. Less than a year later, on May 4, Aéropostale announced it was filing for bankruptcy protection and closing 100 of its 800 stores. In its most recent earnings in March, quarterly sales had declined 16 percent to $480 million. But don’t blame Mota.
“Aéropostale can work with the biggest influencers out there, but if you don’t have a compelling narrative in conjunction, you won’t move the needle that much from a ‘cool perception’ perspective,” said Chris Gilbert, senior social strategist at digital agency Kettle. “It underscores the importance of a long term strategy, rather than having someone like Bethany Mota come in overnight as their biggest advocate.”
For traditional teen retailers like Aéropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle, the journey to recovery from continuously slipping sales is more involved than slapping a mega-influencer onto a new line like a Band-Aid. Teen shoppers are inundated with options, like fast fashion retailers and e-commerce pure plays, as well as social media influence. Thanks to those platforms, they also have a way to voice their opinions — which aren’t always nice.
“The biggest distinguisher today is that teens have a greater license to be more opinionated and highly critical of brands,” said Gilbert. “We forget how judgmental teens can be. You have to stand out and do something that’s contrasting against what others are doing and has a point of view.”
Rather than dated brands that seek out Snapchat accounts simply because it’s where the teens are, successful teen retailers are building social media conversation and tying in influencers around a core brand message.
“Teens these days have extremely short attention spans,” said Inii Kim, co-founder and creative director of agency King & Partners. “They’re always ‘swiping’; excited about something one day, forgetting about it the next — it’s important for marketers to keep this in mind and create content that really grabs their attention.”
“Brands get caught up in the cliché that teens are tech savvy,” said Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner at MEC. “They are, but brands need to first do less talking and more listening, they can’t just tell consumers what they want, they have to understand them.”
From there, successful social media strategies and influencer partnerships can follow.
American Eagle’s lingerie and leisure brand Aerie has helped improve company sales with its ongoing Aerie Real campaign, which involves not Photoshopping its models. The company reported a 3 percent revenue increase in 2015. Aerie global brand president Jen Foyle said the movement came about after listening to customer feedback and understanding they wanted to see real bodies being celebrated.
“Aerie Real has landed on a business strategy that makes a great talking point,” said Gilbert. “There has to be a truly compelling idea for customers to latch onto and then champion to their peers.”
At Abercrombie, a full rebranding is underway as it tries to steer back into favor. The company has shed its too-cool attitude, shifted away from logo-centric clothing, booted its shirtless models, ended overtly sexy advertising, brightened its stores, turned down the loud house music, and started selling products in black. Sales have started to turn around in recent quarters.
“The former cool brands that failed stayed too much who they were,” Fishman Zember. “Abercrombie is starting to turn around because it’s accepted it has to be nimble, in tune with trends, and tap into things that matter to teens.”
In December 2014, Aéropostale CEO Julian Geiger told investors that the company wasn’t interested in competing with trendier retailers like Forever 21. “I still believe that while they strive for individuality in many ways, at 14 to 17 years old, they still want to be accepted by their friends and peers and there is still a uniform that they wear that makes them cool and fit in,” he said.
That mindset couldn’t have been more misguided.
“Aéropostale never had a strong enough differentiation,” said Fishman Zember. “Brands need to figure out what they stand for, what’s the story and what technology or influencer can tell it.”