Lands-end.jpgEvery now and then (well let’s be honest, it’s pretty often actually), another iconic brand steps spectacularly into it and presents us with the opportunity to opine on the do’s and don’ts associated with brand loyalty. You know, that highly coveted characteristic where you’ve converted costly, desirable prospects into returning, tried-and-true customers whose only requirement is that you steadfastly delight them with your brand experiences.

Our case in point this round is Lands’ End. Yes, that well-known purveyor of pseudo preppy style. Turns out they sell a lot of school uniforms, too – many to devoutly parochial schools it would seem. Well, after cutting the cord with Sears in 2014, management hired Federica Marchionni, the former North American president of fashion house Dolce & Gabbana, in an effort to breathe some life into the brand and boost lagging sales by introducing hipper styles that would appeal to a younger demographic alongside the shapely mom jeans they’re so well known for.

One (Content) Size May Not Fit All

As you may have heard, the Spring edition of this year’s catalog featured the first in a set of interviews called the “Legends Series” as an “ode to individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large.” Not surprisingly, the company has since learned the hard way that such superlatives can be highly subjective. Especially if you lose sight of your core target audience or play cut-and-run with those new ones you’re after.

The first in this series featured Gloria Steinem — and I’ll do my best not to inject any political viewpoint here. While the company appeared careful not to venture into controversial or polarizing editorial territory, the mere selection of Steinem proved enough to agitate a vocal base of customers. Boy did they let Lands’ End know it through enthusiastic expressions and vitriolic threats of boycott through social media and other channels.

But it was the company’s knee-jerk reaction to this response that then spurned the collective ire of virtually everyone else, confounding business and brand experts everywhere.

Companies from Disney to Target to Cheerios have learned to hold ground when faced with similar circumstances. Sarah Halzack of the Washington Post put it this way: “The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even it meant alienating some customers.” But Lands’ End immediately retracted and apologized for the content and then went even further by eliminating a charitable component associated with it.

Perhaps this was a calculated move to save face with those they’d hoped would remain their most loyal and important customer base. But really, hadn’t they lost most of them already? In retracting the story and expressing regret for running it in the first place, hadn’t they stepped even deeper into polarizing territory? Even now, their social media channels are brimming with discontent — almost exclusively pro-Steinem. And not a word about the clothes.

Size-up Your Brand and Audience

Let’s face it, Lands’ End has never been perceived as a provocative brand when it comes to their products and their consumer base has been an obvious reflection of this. Did those responsible for developing brand content lose sight of who they are? As Jim Joseph writes for the Huffington Post, “You need to understand your core audience, what’s important to them, and focus on it… all the while sticking to who you are as a brand. You can’t roam around and then expect that consumers [will] understand how to engage with you.”

Was the disconnect an attempt to increase market share by acquiring new customers whose trendy mentality might align with more progressive thinking and not so much with the mindset of their existing customer base? Not necessarily. Most brands successfully appeal across widely diverse audience perspectives.

Lands’ End could have avoided controversy altogether by sticking to what it does best: selling clothes. Their first misstep may have been going editorial in the first place. But once they went there (and suffered the initial consequences), they made a second, more serious and avoidable mistake. They caved. Writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sara Bauknecht put it succinctly when she wrote “Lands’ End needs to figure out what it believes in, especially if it wants to expand its reach as a lifestyle brand, like its new CEO told Glamour.”

It would have been one thing if they were a cause-affiliated organization already. As Bob Garfield mentions in Media Post, the Susan G. Komen Foundation faced the backlash of certain factions who threatened to withdraw their support based upon the organization’s contributions to Planned Parenthood. But those organizations have parallel missions in supporting women’s health so it’s not surprising such controversies might arise.

If You Decide to Wear It, Make Sure It Fits

So what’s the obvious lesson from this saga? First, know your target audience and remember what you’re selling to them. Appeal to and delight them with product- or service-centric content that speaks to all of them — or, at the very least, doesn’t infuriate some of them. And if you do decide to venture into bold, brand-expanding territory, try it on first (test), make sure it fits (re-test) and then commit to it. You may not be able to please all the people all of the time, but for chrissakes, try to avoid displeasing the entirety of them all at once.

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