Just last month, Victoria's Secret taped its 23rd annual fashion show in (where else?) New York City. That show aired on ABC on December 2. And practically before the models had a chance to swap their wings for street clothes, the criticisms started rolling in.
"[The pinup era] is on it's way to extinction. [...] To think that presenting women as presents to be unwrapped does not shape social expectations is to fool yourself. If Victoria's Secret wants to remain relevant to the cultural conversation, it has to accept some responsibility for re-forming (and reforming) that conversation." --Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times
"'VS' fashion show illustrates how out of touch the brand still is. With TV ratings that have been in freefall for years and a consumer that no longer resonates with 'supermodels', we question why the company continues to hold the show." --Analyst Randal Konik, Jefferies Financial Group, Insider
"[Putting] conventionally attractive women onstage -- even if those women are more racially diverse than in past years -- and using them as physical representations of sex in order to sell bras isn't exactly a manifestation of the feminist dream. More disturbing is seeing the show billed as 'empowering,' even in contexts that make little sense." --Jill Filipovic, Cosmopolitan
There was also scrutiny for comments from Ed Razek, Chief Marketing Officer of L Brands, Victoria's Secret's parent company. Those statements reflected the idea that trans and plus models didn't need to be included in the show. Razek quickly apologized, but the debate about whether Victoria's Secret lags behind in inclusivity and diversity flared.
The fantasy no one dreams of
Razek always has been clear that the company is based on a fantasy. But it's not a fantasy that customers seem to want anymore. Viewership in the show was just 3.3 million, 1.7 million fewer than last year and down from its 2001 peak of 12 million. Konik called the event a "liability".
"Yes, the Victoria's Secret fashion show is a fantasy about a particular kind of body," Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post, "and a good percentage of the culture is now offended by this, calling that fantasy corrosive, discriminatory and simply outdated."
The million-dollar entrepreneurial question
So it all begs one critical inquiry. How can a business leader walk the fine line between being aspirational and acknowledging customer reality? How can you cater to the alluring idea of becoming something (better) that you're (allegedly) not, all while being relatable and practical through a changing market?
The key is to look at how you portray exclusivity. Aspiration works because it appeals to our natural, instinctive desire to be part of a different, more elite group. But behind that is the belief that the group is actually accessible. It might take ridiculously hard work and years to get there, and life is still going to hit us in the face sometimes, but we can get there if we follow certain procedures or put in enough effort. It's a big reason why the models who walk the show love it--they do put in incredible work to make the cut, and being cast is a nod to it all. And it's this belief in accessible, aspirational exclusivity that's at the core of dozens of luxury brands.
But for many potential customers, Victoria's Secret isn't exclusive. It's impossible. No matter how much they exercise or diet, they won't have legs up to there or be a size 2. Angels might be able to walk around in underwear-themed sexual liberation and be safe, but millions of women in the real world are part of #MeToo. This was true when Victoria's Secret was founded. It's just that customers are more aware of just how distorted the fantasy is, and so they find it harder and harder to tolerate and follow it.
Companies getting it right
Companies can create possible exclusivity. A good example is late founder and designer Kate Spade. Her designs were free and creative yet practical, and customers bought them because that's how they wanted to be, too. At the same time, the designs are still luxurious enough in price that getting one feels like an achievement. While the brand is addressing changes to the market and taking a slightly more modern spin, it's remaining true to these fundamentals.
Or take Crossfit. Their branding isn't about what you look like or what you can wear. It's about being able to sacrifice and master something. To function better. To face something outlandishly intense and win. It doesn't matter if you start out lifting 5 pounds or 50, as long as you start. And what's more, you exercise with other people and have the sense you're not alone as you fight.
Or if you want to stay within the lingerie realm, take Rihanna's Savage X Fenty line. Whereas Victoria's Secret's models tend to look cut from the same mold, Rihanna's run a full range of sizes. Messages of inclusivity, confidence, respect and individuality are prominently displayed on the line's website. And while the products might be sexy, you still somehow get the feeling that that kind of physical intimacy isn't really what the brand is selling. Personal fierceness is. It's the very concept of empowerment Victoria's Secret claims to want to communicate, yet because of the different approach, Savage X Fenty wins.
Creating an ideal for customers is half of what business is, and it's OK to create something new and different. But if the ideal is something that the customers never can reach or accomplish, then the dream becomes an alienating nightmare. Always ask yourself what customers have to do to get themselves to your vision and what the context for any personal change or effort would be. Ask yourself if the customers can imagine themselves where you want them. If the answer goes beyond what most people can make work or face, turn around fast and rethink.