Where Victoria’s Secret’s Rebranding Goes Wrong

EditorsJun 24, 2021

Where Victoria’s Secret’s Rebranding Goes Wrong

From exclusionary marketing to a lack of eco-friendly options, here’s why the company’s new transformation plan misses the mark.

A Victoria’s Secret store in New York City. The lingerie brand is undergoing a rebranding, but its efforts may not be enough to save it, according to Associate Editor Lenore Fedow. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/WestportWiki)
The executives behind the rebranding of Victoria’s Secret are akin to me in algebra class. They just don’t get it.

I’ve written about the lingerie company’s trials and tribulations previously, noting how slow it’s been to adapt to changing tastes, clinging to an outdated idea of what “sexy” is at the expense of its bottom line.

So when I heard the company was rebranding as part of its spin-off from parent company L Brands, I was eager to see if it was making some necessary changes.

Perhaps it was expanding its size range to better cater to the average shopper, or maybe it was appointing a woman to lead the company.

No and no.

Victoria’s Secret is making the same mistakes it’s always made—failing to listen to its customers or adapt to a changing world.

In exploring the company’s rebranding plan and how it misses the mark, let’s take a look at what retailers need to understand about today’s consumer.

Lesson 1: Representation is everything.

Victoria’s Secret advertising campaigns have never been reflective of the world we live in.

Its ads have historically featured thin, (mostly) white models, known as the Victoria’s Secret “Angels.”

The company is by no means the only retailer to lack diversity in its advertising campaigns, whether we’re talking race, age, body type, differences in physical ability, or any other metric.

I could say the same of many major jewelry brands, who send me press photos of the same type of thin, white woman time and time again.

However, as other companies started to open up their casting calls, Victoria’s Secret doubled down on its exclusionary marketing tactics.

Only after public outcry following some incredibly insensitive comments from former executive Ed Razek about plus-size and transgender women did the brand add more diversity to its roster.

It hired its first transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, and its first size 14 model, Ali Tate Cutler.

In recent years, Victoria’s Secret ads have featured a somewhat more diverse lineup, but if you’re looking for someone over a size 14 or the age of 40, you’re out of luck.

I am a straight, white woman in my mid-20s who wears between a size 14 and 16, and the company’s ads have never resonated with me.

What must it be like for people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, those living with disabilities, the many people who are above a size 14, etc.?

Representational advertising resonates with people. If I can’t see myself in your clothing, shoes, or jewelry, I’m much less likely to buy them. And if I come to your store and you don’t make me feel welcome, I’ll find a store that does.

Other companies have picked up on this. Lingerie brand ThirdLove offers 78 sizes, including half-cup sizes, and its “nude” bras are available in a variety of earth tones in order to match the wide array of skin tones.

Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty put on its own lingerie runway show in 2019, showcasing women of all sizes, ages, races, and ethnicities. Two visibly pregnant models strutted down the runway.

It can and has been done. Victoria’s Secret just didn’t want to, until its hand was forced.

As part of its rebranding, the company said it’s doing away with its “Angels” and is touting a new group of ambassadors, called the VS Collective.

To be clear here, the brand didn’t have an epiphany about body positivity or the danger of promoting Eurocentric beauty ideals. Its fashion show was canned in 2019 due to dwindling audiences and a wave of public criticism, so the “Angels” were already out of a venue.

The new group includes the previously mentioned Valentina Sampaio as well as actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, mental wellness advocate Adut Akech, equality activist Amanda de Cadenet, skier Eileen Gu (also a new Tiffany & Co. ambassador), and plus-size model Paloma Elsesser.

While it is a more varied group of women than the brand would usually feature, it has a disingenuous air to it.

Did your mom or dad ever force your older sibling to play with you when they didn’t really want to? That’s the best analogy for what’s happening here.

Consumers, particularly those in underrepresented communities, can tell the difference between when a company is pandering to them and when it’s taking real steps to be more inclusive.

While its ads may not be as inclusive as they could be, surely the company has made some changes to its executive team to better cater to its customer base, right?

Well, yes and no.

I was hopeful when I saw that six out of the seven of its new board members were women, but deeply disappointed at who filled the last slot.

In the seventh seat, and at the top of the company, is Martin Waters, the new male CEO of Victoria’s Secret.

I am not discounting this man’s talent or ability, but the choice is so tone-deaf it hurts.

The company doesn’t take actionable measures to be more inclusive, but rather superficial ones to let you think that is so. Customers can tell the difference.

It gets to the heart of Victoria’s Secret’s real issue—it was never really for or about women.

Lesson 2: Cater to your customer.

If you’re a woman who has ever watched a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, you know it was not for you.

The brand has been criticized, and rightly so, for catering to the male gaze while claiming to be a company for women, a flaw its new CEO has acknowledged.

“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” Waters said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

“We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.”

Whether a store sells bras or bracelets, the onus is on the retailer to stay up-to-date on market trends and offer what their customer base is looking to buy.

In the jewelry world, as more women buy jewelry for themselves, brands have had to shift gears from “what do men want to buy for the women in their life and how can we cater to them?” to “what do women want to buy for themselves and how can we cater to them?”

In contrast, as athleisure continued to grow in popularity, particularly among the core demographic of younger consumers, Victoria’s Secret insisted on pushing sexy, barely-there lingerie.

A 2019 report from The NPD Group titled “The Bra Evolution,” found that comfort and support were listed as the top priorities for U.S. women buying a bra for themselves, while “sexiness” was in eighth place.

In addition, as other lingerie brands have expanded their size ranges, Victoria’s Secret’s remains limited and inconsistent.

While there are some larger cup and band sizes available, you won’t find those sizes in every style. Most panties, and its popular swimsuit line, don’t go past a size extra-large.

The average American woman wears a size 16 to 18, according to data from Coresight Research, so the brand is leaving out countless women.

If you’re a high-end couture brand, perhaps you can afford to be exclusionary in your sizing.

If, like Victoria’s Secret, you’re a mall store looking to sell to the local community, you might want to rethink stopping at the size where your average customer starts.

The average-sized American woman on the hunt for a comfortable bra is walking right past Victoria’s Secret.

Perhaps with new leadership will come new options that cater to what women actually want, but Victoria Secret’s track record doesn’t fill me with hope.

Lesson 3: Customers don’t easily forget past transgressions.

If I sound like a plus-size woman with a grudge, then you are an astute reader.

When I was in high school, glittery sweatpants from Victoria’s Secret’s teen-focused Pink brand were all the rage. I never found a pair that fit.

If everyone else could fit in those pants and I couldn’t, that meant something was wrong with me, right? And maybe if I skipped lunch for a few days, they’d fit.

Now, I am not putting the blame solely on Victoria’s Secret for the way the fashion and advertising worlds have warped the minds of teen girls and held us all to impossible beauty standards.

But, with this rebranding, Victoria’s Secret wants to wipe the slate clean and start over. It wants us to forget its part in promoting an incredibly dangerous narrative, without so much as an apology let alone a plan to do better.

I won’t give it a pass.

Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, second only to opioid overdoses, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Every 52 minutes someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. That’s around 10,200 deaths per year.

And it wasn’t just the women watching from the sidelines who were hurt. Former Victoria’s Secret model Erin Heatherton opened up in a Time interview about the extreme diet and exercise regimen she was on to maintain her “Angel” physique.

“I was really depressed because I was working so hard and I felt like my body was resisting me,” she said. “And I got to a point where one night I got home from a workout and I remember staring at my food and thinking maybe I should just not eat.”

While brands like Aerie were publicly vowing to stop airbrushing models and start showing what real women look like, Victoria’s Secret was still parading around impossibly thin models.

And while its executive made disparaging comments about the transgender community, violence against transwomen, particularly women of color, was surging.

I don’t even have the space to get into former CEO Les Wexner’s ties to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, but that’s not so easily washed away either.

Companies think they can slap on a fresh coat of paint and consumers will forgive and forget, but they won’t. Not younger consumers, at least.

That’s not to say a brand with a complicated past is completely irredeemable, but a retailer in said position could only move forward with an actionable plan, not just lip service, to right its wrongs.

As younger consumers lead more with their conscience and look for brands that make them feel good about shopping with them, I would bet I’m not alone in steering clear of Victoria’s Secret.

Lesson 4: Consumers want to feel good about what they’re buying.

I noticed Victoria’s Secret is missing something else that’s become increasingly important to consumers: it has very limited eco-friendly or sustainable options.

It does have a section on its website called “Brands We Love” that highlights outside brands, like Los Angeles-based For Love & Lemons, offering sustainable options.

However, Victoria’s Secret doesn’t seem to offer any sustainable lingerie options of its own. This seems like a huge oversight for such a well-known, global brand.

From H&M’s “Conscious Collection” to the ASOS “responsible edit” section, even fast-fashion retailers are hopping aboard the Eco-Friendly Express. (Ask bankrupt Forever 21 what happens to those that miss the train.)

“Customers are demanding to be part of the sustainability conversation, and they are increasingly using their wallets to make their voices heard,” said research firm McKinsey in a recent report on sustainability in retail.

Good On You, an organization that rates brand’s sustainability, gave Victoria’s Secret a rating of “Not Good Enough.”

“We found no evidence the brand has a policy to minimize the impacts of microplastics or minimize textile waste when manufacturing its products,” the review stated.

“Victoria’s Secret, along with many other big-name brands, signed up to Greenpeace’s ‘Detox My Fashion’ program back in 2011 and had set a deadline to eliminate hazardous chemicals by 2020. Unfortunately, 2020 has come and gone, and there is no evidence it met its target.”

Final Lesson

We tend to think of major retailers as these huge, faceless entities, but there are real people behind the scenes making the choices and they can choose to do better.

The thing Victoria’s Secret gets wrong time and time again is thinking it knows better than its customers. Any retailer worth their salt knows the importance of being customer-focused and tuning in to market trends.

Whether you’re a lingerie company pushing skimpy panties on a comfort-seeking woman or you’re a jeweler steering curious customers away from lab-grown diamonds, you’re doing a disservice to everyone involved.

Today’s consumer wants to feel represented and heard. They’re not interested in what you think their style should be, but rather seek out brands who align with their aesthetic and values.

Can Victoria’s Secret ever be redeemed? Is this rebranding going to be enough to welcome back the women it pushed away?

That remains to be seen, but I say its days are numbered.

You can call it “cancel culture,” but I’ll call it “the consequences of your actions.”

 Related stories will be right here … 

Lenore Fedowis the associate editor, news at National Jeweler, covering the retail beat and the business side of jewelry.

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