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The Company(ies) We Keep

By Andrea Bullard

It’s been said that every human being is a composite of the five people with whom they spend the most time. By virtue of association, the person with five ambitious friends is more likely to achieve their own goals than the one who surrounds themselves with people who spend their days draining six packs while staring into a television. It’s why every parent advises their children to choose friends wisely: eventually, people begin to reflect the company they keep.

Just as personal connections are inextricable from identity, so are the relationships people form with brands. The companies consumers choose to engage with reflect their personality and values, which is why people evaluate brands in the same way they evaluate other humans—emotionally. A consideration process that involves questions such as, “Does this brand enhance my persona? Can I trust it? Are its principles aligned with my own?” concludes with selecting companies that reflect the customer’s own worldview. Brands who want to be embraced by their customers in a public way, and inspire any level of evangelism, must carefully define the personality and values they project into the world—in hopes they will be the company people want to keep.

Urban Outfitters is known for its alternative take on contemporary fashion. From the opening of its first store in 1970 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Urban Outfitters defined itself as a brand with its hand on the pulse of college students and young people just out of university. The brand experienced terrific growth by aligning with its desired customers’ worldview: presenting itself as the colorful, free-spirited friend with whom these twenty-somethings crave association. To this end, it hires uniquely-dressed artists to man its stores, where it plays music from various subcultures to enhance the shopping experience with unexpected, often retro vibes. Its checkout areas are lined with bins of loud nail polish colors and new-agey coffee table books, meant to endear it to the conforming nonconformist.

The entire experience of shopping at Urban Outfitters reflected and reinforced how these customers wanted to feel—until it didn’t. By 2011, the brand had lost its way: one thirty year-old observed that year: “I used to walk out of there with my bags stuffed with clothing… today I’d just look comical if I shopped there.”

In the 2000s the brand’s identity changed. New products failed to align with what its historic customer based desired, and controversies, such as a one-off vintage Kent State sweatshirt covered in faux blood stains, pushed the brand from edgy to juvenile. Sales plummeted: the brand itself hadn’t changed, but what it said about a customer to be toting a shopping bag from its stores did.

People began to view the brand as obnoxious and immature instead of clever. It began to lose rapport with older shoppers, while gaining standing with a different demographic: younger teens unconcerned with or possibly even attracted to the brand’s controversies.

Groundswell editor Kelsey Ryan was among the many former customers who ditched the brand, as she felt it no longer represented the kind of person she wanted to be. In a blog post framed as a letter to an old crush, Ryan outlined why she first fell for Urban Outfitters, comparing it to the “9th grade boyfriend” she never had: “Call me a hipster wannabe, but I was so in love with you all through high school and college, Urban. Your store’s so modern boho. Your clothes are so trendy, casual, and chic.”

Ryan wore Urban clothes because she felt they reflected her interests and rebellious bent. Once she felt that the brand’s personality and values fell out of alignment with her own, it was time to move on.

“If I give Urban my money, I’ve just bought stock in their general message. I’m paying them for the privilege of advertising for them,” writes Ryan.

Urban Outfitter’s founder, Richard Hayne, returned as CEO in 2012. In a few years he got the brand back on track—his own analysis was that the company had moved away from its target market ,and he overhauled stores and inventory to better align with that more mature customer.

In 2014, while Richard Hayne was making his return to Urban Outfitters and moving it away from the teenage market Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jefferies was departing after 20 years of heading the brand. In that time he never equivocated when it came to defining the Abercrombie customer—athletic, popular high school students (or those who want to be)—which enabled the brand to sculpt its persona with precision.

“We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” said Jeffries. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Just donning a piece of clothing from Abercombie & Fitch allowed teens to cultivate an image that reflected how they wanted the world to see them: ultra-fit, privileged, well-adjusted, and conventionally attractive. Young people who craved those qualities, encapsulated by pricy quarterly catalogues thick with images of beaming, athletic, half-naked co-eds having the time of their lives, defined their persona by shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Unfortunately for Abercrombie & Fitch, the cache and symbols of privilege changed over time:  it has alienated itself from Generation Z. And unlike Urban Outfitters, who could reset by re-aligning itself with how customers wanted to be perceived, in Abercrombie & Fitch’s case it’s th customers who have moved on.

Brands can and should intentionally influence perceptions about the people who buy their products through the actions, images, and messages that shape their persona: it’s one of the most effective ways to communicate their story, and attract the customers who will best connect with the brand. However, the behavior of consumers can also shape the impression of the brands they use, to deleterious effect.

Nobody understands this better than Ed Hardy, the world-famous tattoo artist whose name is now synonymous with self-obsessed individuals sporting acrylic nails and fake tans. Hardy never intended to attract such an audience.

In 1977, after years of studying tattooing around the world, he opened San Francisco’s Tattoo City, where he was renowned for custom designs in his signature style, which blended traditional Sailor-Jerry tattoos with intricate Japanese line work.

Hardy’s brand began devolving away from that of a revolutionary artist when French fashion businessman Christian Audigier approached him with a licensing deal—one that Audigier insisted would make Hardy “a global phenomenon.” The artist agreed to hand over his designs to be used in an eponymous clothing line.

Audigier’s promise proved prophetic. By 2009, sales of the Ed Hardy brand exceeded $700 million. Hardy’s designs were everywhere, popularized by celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Madonna, who embraced the edgy, imaginative imagery as highly fashionable.

Soon, however, the obnoxious cast of MTV reality show Jersey Shore, which frequently sported its clothing, tarnished Ed Hardy’s reputation and the public perception of the brand was forever altered. In the mind of the public, the brand came to stand for drunkenness, vapidity, and cheap cologne.

“Morons dehumanized it,” said Hardy.

As Hardy learned, customers have the power to shape the reputation of brands as much as the companies themselves do. The relationship between customers and the brands they embrace is inextricable, which is why designing personality and the persona of customers must be done intentionally: unless it consciously works at cultivating that persona, a brand, for better or worse, will begin to absorb the reputations of its customers. Companies don’t have to craft their story and the persona that communicates it, but when a brand doesn’t define itself—and consciously work to support that image— someone else will do it for them.

Andrea is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.