The launch of new products and an accompanying campaign has commentators asking can Victoria’s Secret trade its image for one more in sync with the surging body positivity and equality movements? And will women buy it?
Victoria’s Secret was inspired by an embarrassing department store experience and founded by Roy and Gaye Raymond in 1977. They chose the name and original store decor to evoke the prim Victorian era boudoir as a doorway to the ‘secret’ luxury of underclothes.
From a single California store, the business grew to five stores and caught retail mogul Leslie Wexner’s eye. He bought the company in 1982 and expanded rapidly, opening what today stands at 1400 stores renown for selling a human barbie stereotype of sexy.
Then, like many companies before, Victoria’s Secret found itself out of step with society as its customer’s attitude changed and they turned away from the glitz.
Falling sales since 2016 culminated in a 2021 shareholder court filing alleging an “entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment” which breached owners’ duty to the company and devalued the brand (aka a falling share price).
Something had to change. Enter the new Victoria’s Secret, where athletes, activists, and actors wearing more modest garments replace models in skimpy and fanciful lingerie.
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Martin Waters, elevated to Victoria Secret’s chief executive in February this year from head of international business, is quoted saying:
“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond. We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.”
The irony of a newly appointed male CEO making that statement is not lost. Surely a company serious about reinforcing its change of heart could have found a qualified woman for the role.
Which leads to the question: will it work?
Many organisations try and trade old clothes for new ones. Yet few succeed. They either limp into new endeavours, alive but a shadow of their former shiny selves (think Kodak and Nokia), or disappear completely (think Blockbuster).
Still, asking if the ‘brand’ can change is the wrong question and emerges from a view of the brand as one thing or idea. In fact, a brand is an always changing result of activity over time. That activity becomes value, which the organisation uses to do more work or squanders into irrelevance.
To stop living off the value it banked over decades and start making new deposits, Victoria’s Secret must also change its troubling culture and do more than trade one set of bodies for a different, societally in-step group.
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The lesson for any company, whether everywhere or only down the road or local, is when attempting to change a brand result, you must look below the surface and account for all the different actions and decisions that contribute to the promises you make and experience people have.
It requires more than new products and a different lineup of spokespeople.