Victoria’s Secret’s road to redemption is a lesson in shifting brand perception

Rebranding from a muddled past is a long journey that requires consistent and authentic messaging supported by real action.
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· 4 min read

For years, Victoria’s Secret was synonymous with its annual fashion shows where an array of supermodels—dubbed “Angels”—paraded the brand’s latest intimate offerings. In the process, the brand also cemented its reputation as one that excluded several groups including plus-sized shoppers, people of color, and trans people, among others.

The company was slammed for promoting unrealistic beauty standards, sexism, and discrimination (over which the company expressed “regret”)—all leading to a dip in its market share as competitors began to embrace more inclusive and plus-sized offerings. Fast forward to 2021: Its otherwise problematic corporate leadership was out the door as the brand embarked on an overhaul strategy by hiring a diverse range of brand ambassadors and promoting inclusive messaging in its campaigns.

While it elicited a healthy dose of skepticism among consumers, Victoria’s Secret has come a long way since, with swimwear and intimates lines that feature an expanded size range; bringing on trans, plus-sized, and Black models; and extending its styles and fabrications.

The retailer’s recent acquisition of AdoreMe, a DTC women’s intimates brand known for its extended sizing, marked another signifier in its commitment to redeeming itself from a dubious past. But the question is, are all these efforts more than just a marketing gimmick and if so, are consumers actually buying it?

“AdoreMe was a huge investment and a huge signifier to the community to say, ‘We’re not just saying that we’re doing this. We’re actually doing it,’” Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research, told Retail Brew. “It’s a really smart and strategic move because AdoreMe has 1.2 million existing customers…At their investor day, they also said that this is a strategic priority. They’re trying to move away from their past, and it’s not just lip service, that this is a growth area for them.”

A new chapter: The revamp, however, is more than just about rebranding, it’s about connecting with modern and younger consumers through social media imaging and new styles. “A lot of rebranding happened because the company needs to become more relevant with what’s happening in current times,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt compares Victoria’s Secret’s rebranding efforts with Tiffany’s, which—with its new campaigns like “Not Your Mother’s Tiffany”—has orchestrated a “dramatic” rebranding strategy to woo younger consumers. The brand is also working with Jay Z and Beyoncé, as well as collaborating with the NBA, to step away from its traditional image.

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Then there are others like Abercrombie & Fitch, which for years has tried to distance itself from its reputation of fatphobia and discrimination. Nora Kleinewillinghoefer, associate partner in the consumer practice at Kearney, said the brand has done so successfully by targeting new consumers and putting its money where its mouth is.

Slow and steady: For any brand, including Victoria’s Secret, to be able to replicate that, it needs to keep a few key things in mind, starting with turning words into actions. “[It] can’t just be a marketing message; it has to be followed through with distinct changes in the assortment. It has to be a clear strategy against actions,” Kleinewillinghoefer said, adding that this “meaningful change” in brand perception happens over time as the retailer continues to be authentic in its consumer messaging.

“Consumers do not react well when a brand tries to do a 180 because there are still people who follow the brand that have degrees of connectivity to it,” she said. “Especially when you had a reputation that no longer suits the norms at the time, you do need to acknowledge that.”

She added that in the case of Victoria’s Secret, its past image is so “ingrained” that such a meaningful shift will take a time as the brand restructures its executive team and strives to maintain its independence.

Still, Schimdt said, echoing Kleinewillinghoefer’s sentiments, messaging and actions go hand in hand. “You can’t have messaging that communicates that you are this new entity, taking on these new values and mission without the actions supporting that,” she said. Some key areas for these brands to focus on? “Consistent and strong communication about what your new brand identity is, what your missions and values are, and then supporting actions—whether it’s new products, your new name, your new image, and what your new portfolio is, and who your target customers are,” Schmidt said.

Editor’s note 12/5/22: This story has been updated since its original posting.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.