Let’s talk Victoria’s Secret. They’re going through a rebrand, ditching their Angels, adding in a “Collective” of women from business, sports, and entertainment with more diverse bodies and backgrounds. The merch will change and work for more bodies and skin tones than they have in the past. But will it work?
In Part 1, I talked about the headwinds they’re facing as a brand that has caused a lot of emotional baggage for large portion of their customer base. But if we put those issues aside, how impactful is their new strategy?
For me, as an intimates industry veteran and branding pro, it’s light years better than what they’ve been doing, but it’s not enough to re-establish Victoria’s Secret as the market leader. But to explain why, we need to look at a few pivotal points where feminism and consumerism have interacted historically.
- Post-Victorian Feminist Movement: In the Victorian era, women wore tight laced corsets that limited mobility and was detrimental to health. It was also an age that viewed sexual pleasure and urges were strictly male experiences. Young men and women largely interacted in family or church settings. But First Wave Feminism brought undergarments that enabled more movement. Youth also had new places to go to enjoy unsupervised mixed-gender social outings, usually with alcohol, and boned in their brand new automobiles. There were everyday undergarments, but sexy negligee that signaled sexual availability was a progressive feminist statement. It’s also important to note that this is why women’s underwear is sexualized whereas men’s is seen as a basic wardrobe staple, more akin to socks.
- Mid 20th century:Underwear progressively gets smaller and tighter fitting. Part of this is due to fabric innovations like spandex, and the other force was shorter, more tight fitting garments that requires more minimalist undergarments. Even though we’ve reimagined this era’s pinup girl in relatively modern lingerie, it’s not a good representation of what women were wearing every day. The average woman is wearing pettipants (basically boxers, which later became boxer briefs as stretch fabrics evolved), high coverage briefs, slips, etc.
- “Have it all” feminism, part 1: In the 1980s, designer Janet Reger pioneered intimates that combined negligee with everyday underwear. It worked because women wanted to be feminine, traditional wives, yet also have a corporate job and succeed in a man’s world. Later, Victoria’s Secret mirrors Reger’s work and has uncanny success launching more scandalous styles as they approach social acceptance, like the thong and the G-string. Department stores are merchandising basics and honeymoon-esque pieces separately and are late to the trend that women are supposed to look sexually available at all times.
- “Have it all” feminism, part 2, GIRLBOSS & boss babes:“Have it all” feminism really peaks in the late 2000s and 2010s. It’s not enough to have a corporate job as a woman, (White) women needed executive status. We bought copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was our style icon. Women were celebrated in the startup sphere, with Outdoor Voices, Theranos, and Nasty Gal lauded as revolutionary up-and-comers. It impacted the lives of everyday women as well. I had conversations as an intern about whether I was “Leaning In” enough. We wore sexy versions of office attire out to the club: tight, short pencil skirts, peplum tops, close toed pumps with extra high heels and a platform base, all topped off with a sock bun. Women added the “CEO” title to their social media handles in droves – after buying into an MLM scheme. You’d probably recognize many of the brands that were founded or restructured as MLMs from recruitment invitations by high school acquaintances, like Younique, LulaRoe, Beachbody, Scentsy, and Monat. Giving money and power to women was good. It was even social justice.
Which brings us to today: The Boss Babe era burned fast and bright. Yahoo’s traffic was cut in half over Mayer’s tenure. Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy. Lean In was criticized for catering to White women and ignoring systemic barriers and intersectionality. Outdoor Voices has been restructured multiple times. Theranos no longer exists and founder Elizabeth Holmes is on trial for fraud. The MLMs cost women thousands of dollars and started facing lawsuits.
It was like feminism meets Reaganomics. If we gave power and equality to an already privileged White woman at the top, maybe it would trickle down to everyone else. But White feminism told those women to prove they could operate just like men and they did. The expectations were that they prove their success in existing systems, not critique and revise them.
The years since have seen society change at a breakneck pace. We had two #MeToo movements, the first centering White women and attributed to Alyssa Milano, and a second to recognize Tarana Burke as the rightful creator and acknowledge the increased violence and decreased justice for non-White women, disabled women, sex workers, and unhoused women. We saw sexual assault claims end careers. We saw them not end a presidential career. We saw protests in pussy hats. We saw Muslim bans, family separation, 3 Supreme Court justices pushed through by the least supported president in history who had to leverage foreign election interference to scrape together just enough votes to take office. We’ve seen a pandemic kill 600,000 Americans and polarized state-level responses. We’ve seen the largest protest movement in American history over racially-motivated police brutality. We’ve seen an ousted president summon an attempted coup.
I don’t think we’ll fully understand how these events affect feminism and consumer habits until the dust starts to settle, but here’s what we know for sure about the women VS is hoping to convert back to their brand:
- It’s a time of transition. 1 in 4 workers reported in May that they plan to change jobs once the pandemic subsides. We’ve seen a spike in out-of-county moves. Divorce rates are down slightly, but experts predict a spike as restrictions ease. (Rates usually spike after lots of family time, like the end of schools’ summer breaks or after the holidays. Plus, economic stability and reduced-capacity court services are likely deterrents). And while separation initiation has skewed towards women (roughly 60% pre-pandemic), it’s increased to 76% mid-pandemic as women bear the most burden of medical caregiving professions, job losses, domestic care work and online schooling.
- Change is happening even on a smaller level. Women’s lives are different even if they didn’t include a major life change. The majority of consumers have picked up an important new hobby. Most have deserted an existing brand allegiance compared to the start of the pandemic. And customers are evaluating what things they want to carry with them from their lockdown lifestyle and which aspects where they want to go back to their old habits. These changes are likely more common for women customers since they were also more likely to view the pandemic as a major concern, wear masks, socially distance, and get vaccinated. Overall, women want brands to aid in this time of self-exploration and recognize that they’re different people than they were when we went into lockdown last March. They want brands to affirm and celebrate their decisions.
- We’re responding to narratives about self-reinvention and retribution. We’ve done a 180 on Britney Spears; when we say “Leave Britney Alone,” we mean it now. While discussing Trump’s inappropriate behavior towards women as a man in power and political leader, we’ve looked at the Monica Lewinsky scandal under the same lens and realized that she’s not the victim. Rebecca Black reemerged 10 years after Friday released with a new look, new sound, and new single embracing her queer identity and has over a million social followers across several platforms to show for it. Similar story for Jojo Siwa, who was never quite universally hated, but got a lot of flack for her sparkly and whimsical style she rocked into her late teens while her peers had a more adult aesthetic (Tiktok seriously lost their minds when they found out she was older than Charli D’Amelio). She gained fans with a little self-deprecating humor and then suddenly became a gay icon after coming out and opening up about her girlfriend. Seriously, imagine a year ago that someone predicted
- We’re hesitantly optimistic. Vaccines are out, but low vaccination rates and contagious variants could erase our progress. We finally had a peaceful transfer of power, but the ousted president is still the leading candidate for 2024. Derek Chauvin went to jail, but nothing has been done to prevent future murders by police or bring violent officers to justice. And we have reason to be skeptical. We thought the pandemic would have a bigger impact on attitudes towards universal healthcare coverage and election results. We thought devastating weather emergencies would make climate change a priority. And we thought that at some point, mass shootings in sacred spaces of the most innocent victims would finally drive action on gun safety. Even if things are going better, it feels like more “unprecedented times” is always lurking around the corner to be absolutely bungled by people in charge and fought by people with no concern for other Americans.
- That hesitant optimism is mirrored in our personal lives as well. It feels good to put on real clothes and go out with friends, but all the neural connections of how to find parking, order drinks, and have a conversation all feel a little rusty and don’t come quite as easily. You’re working again, but it’s a new company and you’re getting used to a new work culture and nervous about how well you’ll fit. During my first post-vax brunch, I talked with a friend about how, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much messaging about how your everyday life just got upended and how there was grace, patience, and an intentional lack of urgency with how we transitioned to life under COVID restrictions. As they’ve lifted, our lives are changing. Albeit, they’re positive changes, but it feels like we’re expecting each other to immediately and easily bounce back into a new routine.
This mindset might not matter much if you’re selling avocados or cars, but it really matters in intimates. We’ve spent the past century calling women’s underwear “intimates” and connecting them to intimate relationships, with men’s desires and the male gaze holding more importance. We’re at a major turning point in the underwear market by shifting that lens to how women interpret intimacy. Emotional connection takes center stage. Intimacy can be sexy, but it doesn’t have to be; centering women makes room for intimate friendships and close family relationships. This interpretation of intimacy showcases vulnerability, comfortability, realness, and authenticity.
For brands to properly convey emotional intimacy in a way that resonates with customers, they need to also be emotionally intelligent about how we feeling as a collective. They need to acknowledge that things have been hard, encourage us nurture ourselves as we work through it, but remind us that we’re strong and resilient, and that they’ll be there to celebrate with us when we reach the other side.
The brands that are beating VS get that. VS photographs their underwear-clad models in the studio, on exotic beaches, in sparse hotel suites; they’re still characters in his fantasies of exotic, spontaneous trysts. Newcomers have imagery that’s suggestive, but it’s accompanied by women with friends, women with babies, women who look comfortable and relaxed at home, women getting ready for something, and witty or inspirational text. The more suggestive shots feature a diverse range of body types and skin tones. Hot and confident moments are for everyone. Models sport a variety of styles, from minimalist bralettes to heavy-lifting underwire bras, and barely there thongs to boxer briefs her for her. Women are encouraged to wear what works for their body and makes them comfortable. I feel like the marketing concepts are made by another anxious, strung out marketing employee over the past year who was like “fuck if I know, dude, just tell the customer ‘do whatever works for you’” and it weirdly works.
Which brings us back to VS. The Collective just hasn’t felt current to me, and it took me a while to figure out why, but they’re Boss Babes. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the women themselves, but the issue is how Victoria Secret tells their stories. They’re powerhouses in their fields. They use their free time to advocate for their communities. They’re all devastatingly gorgeous (5 of the 7 model for a living) and still don’t violate the expectations of the male gaze despite trans, more masculine lesbian, plus size, race, and age inclusion (ages range from 17-49). It’s still “Have it All” feminism. Even their press and marketing copy drips of accomplishment; they call this group: unparalleled, trailblazing, extraordinary, unique, revolutionary, compelling, inspiring, accomplished, and empowered. As women, we want to be all of those things. But we also want messages of permission to not be all those things all the time and to still feel worthy and loved when we can’t be. After seeing the internet respond to Simone Biles after her team withdrawal only makes me more sure that the average woman identifies so closely to wanting empathy and compassion when they’re near their breaking point.
All of these women have those moments of vulnerability. It’s a universal human experience, but as a diverse group of women fighting for equity and respect in their fields, that’s only more certain. It feels like an egregious error for VS to introduce their new spokesmodels without any references to the ways they can be soft, human, and vulnerable as well. It feels almost like someone built this marketing plan in 2013, sat on it waiting for Ed Razek to quit, and just swapped out a few more diverse figureheads before putting it in motion.
But the result feels like we’re swapping one insane standard for women for another. These women are amazing and their accomplishments deserve to be celebrated, but things are so insanely fucked for the women VS is trying to recruit back to their stores and they aren’t problems we can just girl boss our way out of.
The Collective announcement came too early. The “new Victoria Secret” will have new merch, but it doesn’t land until spring 2022. As a customer, I have the attention span of a gnat. Ideally, I see the whole re-brand vision in one place. A few cult brands can get customers to mark their calendars for a product drop, but no one drops that news 6 months early. Apple announces products a little over a week before they’re released. TSwift used to give her fans a week and a half in teasers, but eventually switched to the Beyonce model of saying “surprise, here’s an album!” at 3 in the morning. Victoria Secret underwear just doesn’t have that kind of rabid fanbase. And I get it, they’re hemorrhaging market share and need to stop the bleeding fast. But they could’ve put in some effort to a few new photoshoots and put a preorder or email me option on the site for new size and color inclusive garments. I even read at least 10 articles on the rebrand before I really caught that I shouldn’t be looking for improved product on their site yet.
The Collective marketing also makes me very skeptical whether it’ll be enough to attract defected customers back into the store. VS had 31.7% of the entire women’s underwear market at their peak – and that was with 0 products for the plus or post-menopausal customer (a HUGE subset of women). That’s like saying 80% of customers who fit their product and age range chose to shop there pretty much exclusively. No brand will ever be that big again. With online shopping, there aren’t a few power brands jockeying for mall space. It’s so easy for smaller independent brands to pop up and to fragment the market. But VS is in an even more unique pickle. They’re still #1 in market share with 16% (as of 3 years ago, the next strongest player was Soma with 2-3%). Their 16% has been loyal to their image. A lot of them started shopping there decades ago. Maybe they really like the sexy aesthetic. Maybe they just kept going back to olde faithful. But there’s a chance that going to far and being too progressive may mean that they continue to lose customers, just now the ones with a different expectation for femininity. On the other hand, a lot of us who don’t shop there would need to see bold moves to give them another chance. Change the name to Victoria’s Truth (she doesn’t feel the need to keep secrets anymore). Feature a plus model size 3x or higher who isn’t an “acceptable” hourglass shape. Bring in a line of underwear for trans women to tuck and then some lacy lingerie that fits if they don’t. Show a middle aged woman with a bilateral mastectomy looking dressed up to get dicked down. Victoria’s Secret said they wanted to be “inclusive” but with every brand moving in that direction, you really need to go hard to get credit for it. And if we’ve learned anything from Nike, controversial publicity when it comes to social issues has proven to be good publicity.
Balancing the mindset of their existing customer and the expectations of their desired customer is going to be a highwire tightrope walk with no safety line. I’m not envious of their position. But overall, they’re really doing the bare minimum to go from a problematic brand, to one that feels extremely duplicative of the rest of the market (except that the rest of the market is doing it better). Keeping pace with middle-of-the-road customer sentiment may have worked for them if they started shifting 5 years ago, but falls far too short of creating customer buzz and fixing their reputational setback.