Friday, February 29, 2008

How to Get Your Sexy Back

We all know (and have probably used) the trite marketing mantra "sex sells." But does it really? In a Washington Post article from this morning, C. Britt Beemer, head of America’s Research Group, stated “sometimes sex doesn’t sell as well to a woman as it does to the men.” Well maybe we should clarify that statement. At least in the case of women's intimate apparel, sometimes sex doesn't sell as well to women as it does to men.

Intimate apparel retailer Victoria's Secret saw fourth quarter sales of bras, panties and beauty products decline (amid growth in its fragrance and Pink lines). In fact, VS's sales have been so dismal lately Blogging Stocks reported "Standard & Poor's is threatening to reduce the company's debt ratings to "junk" status, and the stock has been on a steady downward trend." What's happening to Victoria's Secret? The problem here definitely isn't brand awareness. In fact, many women probably think of Victoria's Secret as #1, top-of-mind when they think of lingerie brands. So what's up?

This past November, Fortune reported “Victoria’s Secret could use a little lift.” It claimed Kohl's, Target, J.C. Penney, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, American Eagle Outfitters and others were adding new lingerie lines or updating existing offerings (renovating dressing rooms, bringing in bra fitters) and thus were "stealing Victoria's Secret's thunder." Some critics also believed that Gilly Hicks (Abercrombie & Fitch’s new lingerie line) would put some pressure on VS. I'm not sold that the issue is competition though. For example, even though Gilly Hicks' cotton and lace lines are somewhat less provocative Miss Vicky's, I doubt this will threaten VS's core. Why? Gilly Hicks' ads show naked models in true Abercrombie-esque fashion (i.e. appealing more to VS's Pink customer than the 20-30 somethings). And even though department stores are adding new lines and renovating, there's still something appealing about the sales model Victoria's Secret used to have - purchasing a high quality, specialty product in a somewhat private setting with knowledgeable, approachable sales staff.

So if it isn't competition that's fading Victoria's Secret's glitz and glamour, what is it? Victoria's Secret believes one issue is they've been heavily focusing on their Pink line. In many mall stores it’s the first line you see when you walk in. It's almost like VS forgot they had customers (many with much higher disposable incomes) other than the high school/college set. Sharon Turney, Victoria’s Secret CEO, in a Columbus Dispatch article also from today, states “Victoria’s Secret has lost its way in part by chasing after the Pink customers with all its other merchandise…All of Victoria’s Secret’s sub-brands “tried to be young” to imitate Pink’s success…when they should have focused more on the quality and sophistication that appeal to women in their mid-20’s and older.” Sure this is some of it. But essentially Victoria's Secret is losing sales because they're trying too hard to be SEXY (picture this word in hot pink, neon, blinking lights) and have forgotten what sexy really means and feels like to a woman (wonder why the current Dove ads have hit home with women?). Victoria's Secret has strayed from what their brand used to stand for...the softer, sometimes secretive, more alluring side of a woman. (Based on comments to multiple Victoria's Secret articles I've read online, I'm sure some VS employees will jump all over me for that statement. But let's be honest really jilts us the most when it's TRUE).

When did the brand make a wrong turn with its products and image? I would argue it was about the time (in the late '90's) when VS ventured into making lingerie a public fashion statement, creating fashion shows highlighting intimates and even offering up a completely-unaffordable-and-not-practical-to-the-target-consumer, multi-million dollar diamond bra. I remember the first time I noticed how far Victoria's Secret had gone awry. Several years ago my sister who lives in Columbus (home to Limited Brands and VS), took me a new Victoria’s Secret store in the Easton Town Center mall (the second store that had opened there). She wanted me to see the North location, saying I'd be shocked. And she was right. I was almost embarrassed to be seen entering the store. With its different themed rooms, hot pink and black lacquer accents, mannequins wearing gigantic angel wings, and neon signs hanging on the walls, I felt like I was in a XXX video store waiting to watch a dirty "film" rather than try on bras. The store didn’t feel exotic and expensive, it felt trashy and cheap, and it was entirely too cartoonish - more "Vegas showgirl" than "real woman." I thought to myself "There's nothing in here I'd want to wear, the quality of the product is lacking, and it's entirely too expensive for me to purchase "every day" underwear here. I mean, with this for a brand image, does anyone really believe Victoria has any sort of secret anymore? Seriously?" Several articles have been released today with Victoria's Secret stating they believe they have become "too sexy" and need to scale things back. I argue they haven't become "too sexy," instead they've become trashy. And there's a big difference between the two.

My sister and I actually had a discussion about lingerie/intimate apparel a few months ago and were talking about how difficult it was to find underwear that was classy, comfortable, yet still sexy these days. We thought whoever could accomplish this and open a chain of stand-alone shops to take on VS would be landing a gold mine. Besides looking for ourselves, we'd been searching for lingerie gifts for a couple of brides. We both had visited VS and found the stores to be lacking in selection with only a couple of cheaply made, yet expensive "nightie" offerings in their stores. I'm almost embarrassed to admit (due to their own "trashy" image) but I ended up purchasing a babydoll from Fredericks of Hollywood since it had a better style, was made of a better material, and was offered at a better price.

Sometimes if you say the word too much people start to think you’re saying it to make yourself believe it. So Victoria's Secret, don't tell me it's "sexy," show me why it's sexy. Don't you remember? Women generally like to take it slow, maybe even play the tease. Foreplay can be everything. Back on January 30, the AP reported that Victoria’s Secret releases the “What is Sexy” list. Ryan Seacrest made the list and VS spokeswoman Monica Mitro was quoted as saying "What's sexy about (Seacrest) is he doesn't act like he is.” Hmmm…maybe a tip for VS to apply to their product development and marketing models!

We’re all familiar with Justin Timberlake’s song “Sexy Back.” So here are my recommendations to "Miss Vicky" to help her get her sexy back (and get me back in to her stores). Essentially it's all about getting back to basics:
  • Focus on the product. What is is that women want in intimate apparel? They don't want to be "obvious" all of the time. VS needs to remember that there's a practical need for underwear too. It isn’t always about being sexy or turning on the opposite sex. Most women also want to feel comfortable. You probably won’t be going to the gym in a mesh number, wearing a thong doing chores around the house or a lacy number that’s uncomfortable under clothing to class or to work. Sexy can be subtle, it can be flirtatious, it can be demure, and it also can be comfortable. Quality is important too since women don’t want the bra they just spent close to $50 on or the panties that were $16 a pop to have stringers of elastic or fall apart in the gentle cycle of the wash after a couple of washes. Is that too much to ask? One epinions user (lori17) writes "Victoria's Secret Used to Be Wonderful...Until recently, I was customer...I decided to write this review because I can't believe that so many women don't see how much the quality has declined or don't recognize the terrible quality from their first purchases. VS used to be amazing. The bras, panties, sleepwear and robes were very high end and lasted forever..." If it's not going to last, I'm not going to pay for it.

  • Focus on the experience. Why is an intimate apparel store appealing to a woman? If you read different reviews of Victoria’s Secret on sites like Yelp, many women complain about the overall experience in the's no longer intimate for them. For example, some stores have men working the sales floors. Not to discriminate guys, but a lot of women are uncomfortable about trying on lingerie and picking out bras around strange men. On Yelp, Sara C. from Brooklyn, NY sums it up by saying “Sorry, big dudely dude. Do NOT come up to me while I'm browsing for articles of clothing that are going to be touching all my most intimate areas, clothing that is meant to be shared with only a select few, and start getting all up in my business. This is a private moment. I do not want you to show me anything. I am mortified at the prospect of asking you questions about anything. In fact, I'm not even entirely comfortable with uttering words like "demi-cup" or "negligee' in your presence, considering that you're not my mom or my best friend and I'm also not planning on screwing you later (which are the three types of people I'm generally willing to talk lingerie with, unless you are a very approachable and FEMALE lingerie store clerk). Oh, and don't even THINK about measuring me for a new bra.” I'd say she's covered the thoughts of most female shoppers to a "T." Regarding people who work in your store, we know you probably can't discriminate in your hiring, but women truly do feel more comfortable buying intimates from women. Men following us around, asking us questions, etc. is simply creepy. Remember how embarrassing it was to buy tampons at the store for the first time and how you really wanted to avoid the check out line with a male cashier? The same feeling applies here. Shopping in privacy for intimate items is very appealing to us. Sure we might bring our boyfriend or husband into the store with us, but they're part of our private lives. So how can you make the experience enjoyable for the woman and not intimidating? Something that's fun and exciting and comforting at the same time. Maybe like going to the spa...going in stressed, coming out feeling radiant and confident.

BTW...there happened to be a Post Secret card that pretty much sums up how many women currently feel about Victoria's Secret (see below). For those of you who don't know, Post Secret ( is "an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard". Actually the concept of this blog would have been an interesting marketing campaign for Victoria's Secret (asking customers to anonymously share their secrets on their website). Something else to help bring some secrets back to Miss Vicky.

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