Somewhere around her 40th birthday, the typical American woman might endure a small age-related panic attack. The fear of seeing her youth and sex appeal slowly replaced by gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging skin can grip many women around this time.
Something like that seems to be happening over at Victoria’s Secret—just a year shy of its 40th birthday, the company appears on the cusp of its own corporate version of a mid-life crisis, and it is desperate to stay sexy and relevant. The CEO resigned two months ago, and the company recently announced it would be restructuring by laying off employees and switching up its sales and marketing strategy, partly by discontinuing the iconic catalog that’s almost as old as the company itself.
The folks behind the billion-dollar bra business have good reasons to start shaking things up; although Victoria’s Secret has long enjoyed a reputation as the sexiest store in your local mall, that signature sex appeal is posing challenges as the company tries to lure younger shoppers to its stores.
If Victoria’s Secret wants to avoid the same fate millennials meted out to the once super cool and sexy Abercrombie and Fitch, it will have to answer the question it often asks viewers in its commercials: “What is sexy?” More specifically, Victoria’s Secret will have to reconsider “what is sexy” according to today’s diversity-minded, politically correct, socially-conscious millennials and their changing consumer ethos, which could present some serious (and interesting) problems for the panty powerhouse.
Consider Victoria’s Secret’s stable of supermodels, the busty bombshells whose depictions of beauty and sexiness are at risk of being seen by teens and twenty-somethings as boring at best, backwards at worst. Our culture’s current standard of physical desirability seems to be shifting away from the VS model of impossibly tall and thin and towards fuller, curvier physiques (think Kim Kardashian) that are more representative of the average American woman. (Sports Illustrated, by the way, has been busy taking note and putting bigger girls like Kate Upton and plus-size model Ashley Graham on its magazine covers).
Many millennials simply aren’t buying the idea that sexiness fits the fairly specific (and slender) mold associated with Victoria’s Secret; instead, many are embracing a ‘body positivity’ movement whose message is a far cry from Victoria’s Secret and its typical model. VS’s message isn’t helped by news such as the recent story of former VS model Erin Heatherton, who admitted that she was told to lose weight before the last two VS fashion shows because “she wasn’t thin enough.” These stories draw outraged complaints and angry comments from young consumers who are used to having companies listen to their demands.
And then there’s the fact that Victoria’s Secret doesn’t exactly get high marks in the diversity department; neither its catwalk nor its catalog are inclusionary. And it probably won’t help that the company just got hit with a $4 million racial discrimination lawsuit. BET magazine even suggested a VS boycott.
Issues like this matter to millennial consumers. They want to support companies that stand for what they stand for—authenticity and value; products that are more than just products; brands that symbolize something bigger or have some social significance or contribute to some cause.
This is part of what is sexy, cool, and appealing to today’s younger shoppers, and this is partly why Victoria’s Secret doesn’t seem “sexy” enough—other than lacy little underthings, what else does the company offer? To what cause is the company committed?
Victoria’s Secret doesn’t dabble in issues that many millennials care about like gender identity, diversity, environmentalism, feminism or other hot-button topics. There are plenty of causes VS could take up that would make sense, like breast cancer awareness or sexual assault on college campuses. Of course, they don’t have to do anything—as a for-profit company, their job is to sell underwear, and twenty years ago, that was enough. But today, selling underwear that’s not attached to some other value might not be cool and sexy enough for socially-minded millennials.
Today’s younger buyers might end up sending a scantily-clad Victoria’s Secret to its deathbed. If that happens, it would be because millennials are redefining what is appealing, not just with regard to women’s bodies, but with regard to a company’s values, purpose, and ethics. Maybe sex doesn’t sell like it used to.