Can Victoria’s Secret Be More ‘Real’ Without Betraying Its Brand?

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Not even angels are protected from the tyranny of the “craft” product movement. Just as Big Beer struggles with a consumer shift toward speciality micro-brew offerings, so is underwear icon Victoria’s Secret struggling with its brand.

Now, after admitting mistakes, can the brand get “small,” relatable and authentic to better engage with women in keeping with femvertising and brands celebrating real women? And more important, is a pivot toward being “real” a fundamental betrayal of its core brand?

Victoria's Secret Sports Bras

On its November 17th quarterly earnings call, L Brands (formerly Limited Brands) EVP and CFO Stuart Stuart Burgdoerfer downplayed analyst concerns that its Victoria’s Secret unit was still struggling.

He said it did not see the Victoria’s Secret core bra business “getting worse” and asserted that the company was satisfied with its sales in its newer sport and bralette categories. But retail guru and L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner, who has slashed Victoria’s Secret’s apparel and swim lines in the past year, also commented that, “I wish we had taken those actions two years ago, or three.”

Lululemon, Athleta, Title 9, American Eagle’s Aerie line, Hollister’s sub-brand Gilly Hicks, Agent Provocateur, or even Thinx “period underwear” have all risen in the past decade to challenge Victoria’s Secret in one way or another. Smaller niche brands capitalized on millennials’ desire for personalized products and the demographic’s distaste for giant brand names. Studies show millennials are twice as likely to wear sports bras as their predecessors—but Victoria’s Secret did not offer a lot of sports bras until recently.

This summer, Victoria’s Secret threw itself into the athleisure category with gusto by launching Victoria Sport. Aiming to get in on the billion-dollar category, Victoria’s Secret recast models such as Adriana Lima not just as catwalkers but as kick boxers, punch-throwers and athletic goddesses.

But critics say this shift was too little, too late—indeed, years too late. For example, compare the Lima ad to Under Armour’s 2013 “I Will What I Want” campaign starring former Victoria’s Secret icon Gisele Bündchen.

In an attempt to recapture millennial consumers, Victoria’s Secret is also trying to make the brand more “real.” Last month, photos were released of VS model Jasmine Tookes that didn’t airbrush her stretch marks. It’s unclear if the brand intentionally published the un-PhotoShopped photos, but for such an image-obsessed brand, it’s doubtful. VS has been heavily criticized in the past for its liberal retouching of photos.

Of course, one stretch mark is not going to humanize a brand that still faces a fundamental challenge. In an era of embracing “real” bodies and down-to-earth marketing to women, how can a brand based on fantasy be real? By going “real” does Victoria’s Secret betray its brand? And by admitting stretch marks (gasp!) exist, does it admit its brand has been based on false promise? Indeed, what has Victoria’s Secret and its catalog (also being cut, by the way) full of a group of impossible beauties from all corners of the earth stand for if not the suspension of reality? Is Victoria’s Secret going “real” just Bernie Sanders in a crushed velvet Valentino suit?

One escape from America’s demanding market for the bra-maker is across the Pacific in Asia — especially China. Victoria’s Secret plans to open a major flagship China store soon in Shanghai. Until now it has operated a handful of accessory concept stores in the city. To help raise its profile, China’s first Victoria’s Secret model took part in Alibaba’s massive 11.11 Singles Day shopping festival.

“There’s definitely growth potential in the Mainland for Victoria’s Secret but in all likelihood a lot of their success will depend on pricing strategy and store location,” said Avery Booker, formerly of China Luxury Advisors and now co-founder of Enflux. But Booker adds that it’s going to cost the brand a boatload of cash and maybe be good for brand building—but not for sales.

“Even though the brand is fairly popular and well-known among urban women in the Mainland,” said Avery, “Victoria’s Secret has the same problem that most of its competitors and higher-end brands face: Chinese tourists still load up on it on trips overseas rather than shopping locally.” Avery says this overseas access also creates a challenge for a luxury positioning. “Since tourists have encountered the brand as a relatively affordable brand on overseas trips, Victoria’s Secret may find it difficult to position itself as a luxury lingerie brand on par with some of its European competitors.”

In the meantime, to underscore the brand’s messaging challenge, the 16th annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show will again air on CBS this December 5. This time, the angels are in Paris, with a group including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Joan Smalls and Lily Donaldson taking over the VS social media channels on Sunday to bring customers on the journey.

Among the stories the brand’s PR team has been pushing ahead of the show is the #trainlikeanangel theme, with model Lima’s boxing workout in preparation for the show and how she’s in better shape than ever and other models’ athletic prep sprinkled on their social channels. This represents the fantasy of effortless sexiness slamming up against millennials in brands.

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