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Can TikTok’s Biggest Stars Build Abercrombie’s Next Brand?

A new partnership with Dixie and Charli D’Amelio, in the form of a brand called Social Tourist, gives a look at the company’s ambitions.
Charli and Dixie D'Amelio. Courtesy.
Charli and Dixie D'Amelio. Courtesy.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is betting big on influencers. While countless brands have recruited young TikTok or YouTube stars to promote loungewear or model products, the company is going a step further. In a bid to solidify loyalty from young consumers, it is launching a new brand in partnership with TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio.

The brand, dubbed Social Tourist, is born out of a multi-year brand partnership with the D’Amelio sisters, who have served as brand ambassadors for Hollister — Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Co.’s Gen Z-focused brand — since last year. Social Tourist is the next step in that relationship. The D’Amelio sisters appear in the brand’s marketing, wearing logo-covered athleisure, but were also involved in the brand’s creation. Dixie said the two “really were a part of the entire design process, from early ideas, to being sent fabric swatches to then trying on samples (and then more rounds of samples) to ensure we made every change we wanted.”

The line will take a digital-first approach to selling product: though select pieces will be available at Hollister stores, the entire collection will only be available on the company’s website.

Social Tourist is the first new brand Abercrombie & Fitch Co. has launched in over a decade, after launching two in the aughts — Ruehl No.925 in 2004, which focused on 20- and 30-somethings and shuttered in 2010, and lingerie brand Gilly Hicks in 2008, which has since been folded into Hollister’s assortment.

In the time since, Abercrombie has undergone something of a transformation, shedding its previously exclusionary image that relied heavily on scantily-clad models to providing staple items for younger consumers. Its sub-brand Hollister has remained one of Piper Sandler’s top ten favourite teen apparel brands for the last two years, however, it still lags behind American Eagle and PacSun.

To keep pace with the Gen-Z audience that’s resurrected the brand, launches like Social Tourist will only become more important for growth. Abercrombie isn’t alone: more and more traditional retailers, including competitors like American Eagle, are pushing further into influencer partnerships, ramping up digital-first offerings and launching exclusive drops in order to hold the attention of young consumers.

We have to test and learn as we go.

But despite the initial buzz that a D’Amelio team-up is sure to provide, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. will have to do more than simply bring on a star influencer partner to create a brand that lasts — and boost their business.

“We have to test and learn as we go,” said Abercrombie & Fitch Co.’s chief executive Fran Horowitz of the launch.

The company’s prior work with the D’Amelios (last July, the two fronted Hollister’s back to school campaign) was a likely indicator that they’d be effective partners for a larger project. Numbers-wise, the appeal is obvious: the sisters have a combined following of over 250 million across social media platforms.

Most of the pieces from the brand are only available online, and will be released through monthly drops at a slightly higher price point than the Hollister brand, said Horowitz. To promote Social Tourist, the company will primarily leverage TikTok and Instagram for social media, relying largely on the D’Amelios’ following on the platforms.

It’s a tried-and-true strategy: partnerships with young influencers typically generate large social media traction for brands, particularly on TikTok. Fellow TikTok star Addison Rae’s partnership with American Eagle, for instance, generated roughly $4.2 million in media impact value over a six-month period, according to Launch Metrics.

As young consumers increasingly discover and buy products through social media instead of physical retail, gaining traction on TikTok has become increasingly important for brands looking to set themselves up for success in what will undoubtedly be a more digital future.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co.’s brands have long been a staple at malls across America, operating 735 stores worldwide at the end of 2020, but the company’s strategy is shifting. Last year, it permanently shuttered 129 non-flagship stores, as part of a plan first laid out in 2018, and is emphasising their digital offerings. The company is making strides in digital expansion: roughly 54 percent of total net sales were digital for the 2020 fiscal year.

“Aligning square footage with digital penetration is the most important lever to maintain and improve profitability as we continue to transform from a store-led to a digitally-led business model,” said Horowitz in an earnings statement.

It puts them into where the growth in retail is from a digital perspective.

Gen-Z consumers have propelled the company’s current success with sub-brand Hollister, and it’s likely that it will continue to pursue the demographic as it grows into the company’s portfolio of other brands.

A digital-first brand like Social Tourist could offer Abercrombie an opportunity to test digital growth strategies, and the successes and learnings of this brand could carry over across the company portfolio. The move also signals to investors and analysts that the company is willing and able to experiment in order to keep up with a rapidly evolving consumer segment.

“I think that will be welcomed by analysts and investors because they can elevate online sales channels and do more via social media,” said Neil Saunders, an analyst at Global Data. “It puts them into where the growth in retail is from a digital perspective.”

But to be able to utilise Social Tourist that way, it must become a brand Gen-Z wants to shop. And while the D’Amelio connection will undoubtedly help, there are challenges to building an influencer-led brand, particularly through a multi-year partnership instead of a one-off collaboration. The past few years have demonstrated the downfall of brands associating themselves with influencers who face backlash or consumer outrage, from James Charles to Danielle Bernstein. The D’Amelio sisters themselves faced criticism in the past year, from travelling during the pandemic to accusations of being rude to their staff.

A successful partnership must have staying power beyond the names behind it. The challenge for Social Tourist going forward will be to grow beyond its association with the sisters — namely, with product that can stand on its own as the brand evolves and consumer interests change.

“There’s also the risk that you are targeting based on people’s likes and admiration of individuals rather than producing products that people necessarily want to buy,” said Saunders. “It leaves them hostage to fortune.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on 07/05/2021. A previous version of this story said that Abercrombie & Fitch Co. closed 129 stores due to the pandemic. The closures were part of a pre-pandemic strategy plan.

Related Articles:

How Brands Go Viral On TikTok

Is Instagram Reels Better Than TikTok? It Depends on Who You Ask.

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