Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that longtime L Brands CEO Les Wexner has begun discussions to step down from his role and explore strategic options for the Victoria’s Secret brand, including a possible sale. This news prompted a flood of articles summarizing the troubles that have beset the lingerie giant over the last few years, including declining foot traffic in brick and mortar retail, unfavorable fashion trends, increased competition, and public controversies. However, a handful of observers last week also noted that Victoria’s Secret (VS) still has significant scale and brand equity (North American sales last year were around $7 billion), and more proactive steps could be taken to stabilize or possibly even turn the brand around. As potential buyers consider the challenges facing VS and the strategies that could possibly save it, we humbly offer a few suggestions.
Keep updating the brand’s image
One of VS’s worst self-inflicted wounds has been its failure the last several years to evolve its image. Even as competitors like American Eagle’s Aerie began to succeed with inclusive, body-positive messages, VS stuck to its hyper-sexualized, ideal-woman “Angels” marketing. The brand appeared increasingly out of touch as the sexual objectification of women became a national topic of discussion in late 2017 thanks to the #MeToo movement, and it suffered its arguably most tone deaf moment in late 2018 when its longtime head of marketing Ed Razek made controversial comments regarding plus-size and transgender models in a Vogue interview. Since then, the brand has made some progress toward becoming more inclusive: VS has ceased airing its fashion show, Razek retired in 2019, the brand has hired its first transgender model, and the current landing page of www.victoriassecret.com features two plus size models.
However, the brand should keep evolving. It will take time and likely a more obvious marketing overhaul to change the image that the brand has spent decades and hundreds of millions (maybe billions) of dollars creating. One thing VS could do is adapt its concept of Angels. It could bring a celebrity into the fold who embodies a more progressive image – think Demi Lovato, not Kendall Jenner. It might also consider tapping the playbook of mission-driven businesses and make charitable or socially conscious activism a focal point of the mission and messaging of the Angels (isn’t the notion of an Angel more compatible with this idea than with lingerie in the first place?). Once VS has put some work into updating itself, it could restart its fashion show to showcase its progress.
Reclaim technical superiority
In its heyday, VS did not solely rely on sexy marketing – it also led with a message of superior product. For years, the brand launched franchise after franchise of bras boasting technically advanced construction and materials for superior fit, support, and comfort. With names like Ipex, Bombshell, and Incredible, VS used the performance and features of these bras to convey quality and demand high prices, and they created a halo for the rest of the product assortment as well. As trends moved toward bralettes, athleisure, and less heavily constructed bras several years ago, VS got away from this franchise strategy, and its marketing focused less and less on product construction and function. But it should consider ways to rebuild and relaunch a pipeline that touts innovation. High-tech fabrics and garments are currently a strong trend, the consumer still thinks of VS as having technical prowess, and, as previously noted, one-dimensional marketing about sexiness isn’t working.
Launch a new brand
VS might also consider launching a new brand, one that would be unencumbered by past marketing campaigns and PR problems. A new brand could leverage the parent brand’s strengths in sourcing and design, serve as a testing ground for VS and Pink, and immediately compete with more culturally progressive competitors. Admittedly, sub-brands have been difficult for VS in the past: La Senza was a failure, and a partnership with Italian lingerie brand Intimissimi from 2007-2010 was unimpactful and ultimately discontinued. But, on the other hand, PINK was a home run of such proportions that its success was able to offset much of VS’s early struggles.
Ultimately, turning around a brand in decline is a daunting task, especially if the brand in question is heavily exposed to brick and mortar retail. Still, if a buyer steps in to take Victoria’s Secret off of L Brands’ hands, there are an encouragingly large number of strategies it could employ to give VS a chance.
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