Monday, March 7th, 2016 | 5 min read
Just like Heidi Klum says: in the world of fashion, one day you’re in and the next, you’re out.
These days, it looks like antiquated, hyper-idealized beauty ideals are on their way out. Authenticity and diversity are taking their place, and the charge is being led by the connected, socially-conscious Millennial.
As Forbes reported, Millennials “value authenticity… more than content.” They view traditional advertising as phony and inauthentic, and it doesn’t compel them to act. When it comes to creating campaigns that resonate with this audience, airbrushed images and uniform beauty ideals won’t work. Young consumers don’t want an impossible beauty standard chosen by corporations; they want to see their world reflected back at them.
So retailers are doing just that. They’re ditching the unrealistic beauty ideals and stuffy, heavily-edited campaigns in order to resonate with the customer who values approachability and relatability over endless aspirationalism. Here are a few brands paving the way for this new era in retail marketing.
When Queen Bey agrees to model your swimwear, you’d better be prepared to do things her way. H&M crossed the queen in 2013 when she discovered that the retailer planned to retouch her photos and slim down her silhouette.
The kerfuffle made headlines, and ultimately H&M apologized and enthusiastically agreed not to retouch Beyonce’s body in the photos. All the drama brought a lot of fresh attention to the issue of authenticity and unrealistic retouching—both because people shared Beyonce’s outrage at the idea in general, and because her unretouched, healthy body looked incredible and inspiring in the photos.
H&M certainly learned from the experience: Their fall 2015 “Close the Loop” campaign was widely praised for its representation of a diverse range of body types, ethnicity, age, religion, and sexuality. The campaign has an air of I-don’t-care-what-you-think realness to it. And its main thesis statement—”recycle your clothes”—is a slam dunk for connecting with the environmentally-conscious, discerning Millennial consumer.
Last year, American Eagle’s loungewear brand Aerie pledged to stop retouching its models. Period. That pledge has been driving their marketing ever since, and it’s working.
Aerie revamped their website to feature more body diversity in its images, giving customers a unique way to shop, browse, and imagine how the styles would look on them. Customers can even “shop by girl” to choose the silhouette that most closely matches their own.
The retailer’s Instagram feed sums up their mission in the bio: “Why retouch beauty? The real you is sexy. #AerieREAL.” Each real-girl, candid photo boasts gushing comments like “she looks so real,” “she looks like me,” and “I love this so much.”
The brand’s latest foray into authenticity is one of their boldest yet, featuring plus-size (and totally unretouched) Barbie Ferreira in their national ad campaign.
So how is all this working out for Aerie? They’re beating lingerie-behemoth Victoria’s Secret these days, with sales up 9% in 2015. Step aside, Angels and “perfect bodies”; the real girls are here to stay.
Even this once-legendary staple of teen coolness isn’t immune to the young consumers’ desire for diversity and authenticity.
In the face of suffering sales, they plan to update their styles—including offering, gasp, black clothing. For the new young shopper, personal style and uniqueness are more important than giant status-symbol logos. Abercrombie is hoping to pivot their offerings in a way that appeals to all customers, not exclusively the type of people whom former-CEO Mike Jeffries deems “cool” and “good looking.”
The retailer is also concentrating on revamping their marketing. So long, half-naked caucasians in canoes. Hello, trendy, diverse teens styled in interesting and surprising ways. With this new approach, the brand hopes to appeal to a wider audience that is tired of its homogenous, unrealistic ads.
Underneath this shift in how retail brands relate to consumers is the demand for a greater sense of empathy within marketing. Consumers want brands to prove that they not only get who they are as individuals but that they also truly care about making their day better. They want brands to show that they understand their experience of the world and then reflect it in the way do business, from their company values to their customer service, product creation, and marketing.
Social media has played no small part here. It has forced brands to display a more human, conversational, personable side, and this transformation in the way the fashion industry markets to consumers shows that its influence has spread its roots deep into all areas of marketing.
About the Author: Jess Keefe is a writer, editor and branding buff who lives in Brooklyn.