Let me tell you a story about a lifelong love affair…with a brand. We met in the most unlikely of places–a college mailroom, where the object of my affection was shoved into hundreds of mailboxes, eager to find me amidst the lunchtime rush. This was a time when people still wrote letters, affixed stamps onto envelopes (there was no fancy adhesive so we just did the thing that others who had come before us did, we licked), and pored over catalogs. We’d been dating for over a year, and much like a faithful, long-distance girlfriend, I wore his barn coat ($98), wool rollneck sweater in oatmeal ($48; this was before the advent of more fanciful colors like puce and heather river) and wool henleys in an act of devotion. I’d fallen in love with someone who possibly lived in the Ozarks or Colorado or somewhere in the bucolic U.S.. During lunch, I scanned the pages, painted scenery of weather-beaten rocks and cabin homes lodged beyond a great, vast forest.
This was a time when people began to use summer and winter as verbs. One could arguably say that these were the best of times and the worst, because how could we know the future that lay ahead of us with our gadgets that serve as extensions of our limbs and a small box of a machine that would become our Wonderland. Just call us Alice and watch us tumble into the deep. But not yet, not yet. Right now few people used email (DOS, anyone?) much less understood it, and we purchased our clothing from department stores, boutiques or mail-order catalogs.
Can I tell you that the object of my affection was different from the rest? Sure, I had affairs with L.L. Bean (their snow/rain boots are! the! best!) and Victoria’s Secret (back when we thought it cool to order bras from catalogs, the irony of which you’ll read about soon enough), but I was committed to J.Crew. J.Crew, know that Sinead O’Connor crooned “Nothing Compares to You” after she slipped on your barn coat in burgundy and wool sweater in charcoal grey.
I don’t talk about my work on this space simply because I don’t want to. I spend much of my days playing the role of a professional, and there are some spaces where the introduction of this costume would serve as a cruel intrusion–namely, this space. However, last week I found myself so enraged, so disappointed, that I have to talk about it. The intersection of how I think and what I love came to bear. For the past 17 years, I’ve been working in one capacity or another in marketing. For most of my career, I worked in consumer marketing–a role that required me to know how to sell products or ideas to consumers, how to tell stories. However, in the past two years, I’ve focused on brand marketing. The brand side has become challenging in a way that consumer marketing, and its social and digital antecedents, have begun to bore me. How do you architect a brand? What are its pillars? How do you position it? How do you craft benefit language for the consumer in a way that’s compelling? What’s their “Reason to Believe”? For the past two years, I’ve been taking the discipline of branding and brand definition and using it in brand building and transformation projects. How do you change perception? How do establish yourself and your identity in a sea of competitors who clamour for consumer dollars? The work is heady, more strategic than the consumer marketing tactics I’d deployed previously, but it felt like how an advanced yoga student would return to a basics class to relearn the poses and become reaquainted with the foundation.
Before I could market products to customers, I had to deeply understand, for each of my projects, why a consumer would love a particular brand’s product and how they, in turn, would fall in love with the brand. I’m not going to get into the details of this because I can tell you that I’m already bored writing about it, but I was reminded of my 18+ year commitment to J.Crew, and how, in one year, the brand fucked it all up.
First, let’s talk about the quality of the goods, shall we? If you think J.Crew has exceptional cashmere, you have never owned exceptional cashmere. I’m going to pull a “remember when” and you’re just going to have to deal with it. REMEMBER WHEN J. Crew sold thick, double-ply cashmere that didn’t pill after a single use and get ratty after a year, making you regret the MILLION DOLLARS YOU SPENT ON THAT VIOLET SWEATER THAT WASN’T CALLED VIOLET, BUT LABELED SOME OBSCURE HUE? Remember when J. Crew sold wool that wasn’t cut with cheap acrylic? Remember when they didn’t hock acrylic sweaters for $118 a pop? I DO. You can give me the song and dance marketing story, replete with elevated fonts and pictures of Italian factories and fields, but nothing can replace sense memory. My clothes used to last longer, feel better, and no amount of bullshit marketing tactics, gleeful Jenna-loving bloggers and resplendent photoshoots are going to change that.
J.Crew, your clothes have gone to the crazies, and I know, deep in your heart, you know this. And don’t even get me started on Madewell, your insouciant younger sister, because the acrylic sweaters I once purchased on sale? I wear them AROUND THE HOUSE.
As a result of the poor quality, and some questionable designs, I haven’t shopped at J.Crew for nearly two years (save the Minnie pant and the Tippi sweater, both purchases put me to thinking that I’ve been trapped in some 1960s film where everything has shrunk and every woman’s name ends in an “i”). I turned to Madewell, to only realize that their clothes are the antithesis of their name (a cruel tease when expensive clothes fall apart after a single season).
Can I interrupt here? Can I tell you that I loved (and patroned) J. Crew for three reasons:
1. I hate shopping. I hate stores. I hate fitting rooms. I hate people. And J. Crew made my life simple. They sold quality classics online and in catalogs, both from which I could order from the privacy of my own home.
2. I aspired to their simplified, whitewashed version of a life. For years, before the fashionable Jenna-inspired “edits” and cool girls looking drunk in catalogs, the J.Crew lifestyle was simple, cozy, aspirational, yet accessible, and all I wanted to do come winter was swathe myself in one of their sweater-blankets, light a faux-fire and sip cocoa with organic, non-GMO puffed marshmallows. While my life, and racial identity, was this constant specter that hovered, J. Crew offered escapism and free shipping.
3. I naively thought that J.Crew was a brand that loved their customers. Oh friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Setting aside the questionable quality for the insane prices (I was patient though; I would wait for Crew’s triumphant autumn return), let’s dive a little into brand love, which sent this whole rage blackout on its course.
You should know that I don’t share my personal identifiable information with just anyone. I have Inbox Zero. I don’t subscribe to many newsletters. I’ve gone to great lengths to have my name and address removed from scores of mailing lists. I had a rage blackout when the TREE THAT WAS THE RESTORATION HARDWARE CATALOG landed on my doorstep. You’ll often find me on the phone with some customer service representative telling them that no, I do not want their catalog, and no, I would never shop at Fingerhut. I don’t want a complicated life, and because of this, I buy clothes from a handful of brands I trust.
AND THEN I RECEIVED THE VICTORIA’S SECRET CATALOG. I have a long, contentious history with VS, which I won’t document here, but suffice it to say I am not their customer. I do not want to be on any of their lists, etc, etc. So when I received their catalog for the third time, I decided to deploy a friendly inquisition. After speaking with multiple customer service representatives and two supervisors, I learned that Victoria’s Secret purchased my information from J.Crew.
You may think my reaction was dramatic, but who cares? I felt BETRAYED. I immediately called J.Crew and launched into a tirade about how I was “disappointed,” how I checked off that I never wanted my information to be shared, sold or communicated to any other company–I don’t even give my email at checkout! I was assured by my rather flummoxed and just-as-shocked-as-you representative that it’s against J.Crew’s policy to share/sell customer information. The representative promised to look into the matter and call me back.
No one ever called me back.
Perhaps because she was made aware of the fact that J.Crew does share customer information. I learned this because after speaking to a few more ill-informed representatives (did anyone get a CSR manual from J. Crew on their policies and procedures, because the clue phone has been ringing off the hook and no one is picking up on their end) and sending emails to their 24/7 email line, I received this note as part of a longer email thread:
While we do occasionally share addresses with third party companies, those companies are only allowed to send one piece of mail and are unable to add the customer to their mailing list. We are able to turn this sharing “off” upon request which the associate you spoke with should have been aware of and offered to you.
Interesting. So when I opted to not have my information shared, my information was shared anyway. In marketing, we like to call this erosion of brand trust. Or, a violation of CAN-SPAM if you want to get legal about it. Another call to their customer service line, a request to have my information removed from their database, was met with this terse reply: If you can’t tell me your phone number or email, how can I possibly remove you from our database? To which I calmly responded, I don’t know. My address? My catalog ID #? She put me on hold for ten minutes and then I got disconnected. Classy.
This post has gotten so long that I’m not going to even go into J.Crew’s lack of floor service in their Flatiron and Soho locations. When I’m routinely asked, Did someone assist you with your purchase today? I’m often left to respond, no, no one helped me with my purchase today.
A lot of rookie marketers will conceive of grand campaigns to lure customers from one consideration set to another. They will transform their site and social channels into “content machines” where your feed is flooded with “information you can use” delivered by a “human voice.” Self-appointed gurus will prattle on about how content is king, but let me break it down real slow:
CONSUMERS DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR CONTENT IF YOU’RE FAILING THEM AS A BRAND.
Do I give a shit about J.Crew’s newsletters and 24/7 stylists when half their customer service staff doesn’t even understand their policies on how a customer’s information can be shared/marketed? Do I give a shit about their Cyber Monday sale when I’m spending more money than I used to for a subpar product? Marketers, me being one of them, are used to dousing glitter over shit and calling it glitter, but customers aren’t stupid. If a brand can’t get the basics right: product, product value and proposition, and service, they will never care about the glitter. Stupid people care about glitter. Informed, discerning customers, who value their money and service, care about a good product and a brand that’s honest.
When I wrote J.Crew a long, heartfelt letter telling them why they lost me as a customer, much of their response was: “We’ll forward your information to the appropriate department.”
Yeah. I think it’s about time we see other people. Cuyuna, Everlane, Banana Republic with your comeback cashmere and sweaters, Rag & Bone–meet your new customer.