Artwork by Irene Zhang

Falling From Grace

Since 1977, Victoria’s Secret has defended its title as the largest lingerie brand in the United States by selling an ultra-sexy, airbrushed image of women to customers. Victoria’s Secret is known for its “Angels”, a flock of the world’s top models who are featured in its ad campaigns and annual fashion show donning wings and bedazzled lingerie. It leads the intimate-apparel industry with $7 billion dollars in annual sales but has struggled with the entrance of consumer-centric competitors such as Aerie and Savage x Fenty.

In 2019, the lingerie powerhouse experienced a significant 7 per cent drop in sales. Furthermore, in February 2020, private-equity firm Sycamore Partners acquired 55 per cent of the floundering brand from parent company L Brands for a mere $525 million. If the firm chooses to revive the brand rather than sell it off for parts, new strategies informed by an understanding of changing consumer preferences must be implemented for Victoria’s Secret to regain leadership.

In today’s climate, authenticity, inclusion, and women’s empowerment are becoming increasingly important, especially to Victoria’s Secret’s target audience: women. Victoria’s Secret is falling out of favour because it continues to peddle an unattainable and idealized image of female beauty. In our rapidly changing world, the issue of modernizing to reflect consumer values is universal across all industries and sectors. Brands that have managed reinvention are now succeeding where many others are failing.‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎

Disney is a prime example of this; it has flourished within the entertainment industry by evolving its screen stories, products and offerings alongside its evolving consumers. By doing so, Disney has grown its revenue by 106 per cent since 2006. When comparing the current business strategies of Disney and Victoria’s Secret, it appears that the Angels should look to Disney’s overarching strategy in order to salvage their own brand and develop a strategy for long term growth. 

Designed by Emily Nold. Source: L Brands Annual Report 2019, Disney Annual Report 2019

Mickey Ears On

Victoria’s Secret was originally designed for the male gaze; founder Roy Raymond wanted to make the process of buying lingerie “sexy” and “exciting” for men in a refined setting reminiscent of a Victorian boudoir.  Victoria’s Secret quickly became the largest lingerie retailer in the U.S. in the 1990s. However, Victoria’s Secret began to decline as they ignored warning signs in the form of consumer feedback. 

In 2017, the annual fashion show faced backlash for cultural appropriation and a lack of body shape diversity. Their decision to cancel their swim and apparel lines in 2016 was also met with such consumer outrage that they were forced to reintroduce the swim collection in 2019. It was a move deemed by many as being too little, too late. Further, a substantial number of once-loyal customers have begun to speak out about the decline in both product quality and customer service that the company has undergone. Shockingly, the brand even lacks a mobile app; this has become a standard practice in the retail clothing industry. These issues have resulted in the erosion of their customer loyalty, popularity, and relevance. 

Furthermore, Victoria’s Secret ignored changing views surrounding the benefits consumers sought in lingerie. Other brands such as Aerie and Free People began introducing more comfortable bralette offerings to cater to the functional aspects of lingerie that consumers were seeking. Unfortunately, Victoria’s Secret was late to incorporate such products to their line and therefore was unable to meet the needs of the market, missing an opportunity to further grow its brand.

Whereas Victoria’s Secret failed to acknowledge the wants of their consumer, Disney understood that if it didn’t listen to its consumers, someone else would. The Disney Digital Network consists of over 300 digital channels that reach over a billion social media followers and enable Disney to listen to it’s fans. For example, in 2018 fans expressed excitement on social media around Disney’s 1990 film Hercules, and the company created merchandise and content in response. The implementation of measures such as the Disney+ streaming service and a mobile application that aids with navigation of their parks demonstrate how Disney has enhanced it’s offerings to cater to it’s audience and nurture a long-term relationship.

Disney also authenticates its mission to “entertain, inform and inspire” through philanthropic and environmental efforts such as Disney’s Team of Heroes and the Disney Conservation Fund. These initiatives connect with Disney consumers and instill a sense of pride associated with the brand. Consumers want to feel that their values are similar to those of the brands and companies they engage with. By creating social initiatives that resonate with their target segment’s values, Disney is able to cultivate a long term relationship with its customer base.

Victoria’s Secret’s commitment to its established practices and offerings has prevented them from preserving their popularity amongst their consumers. Resistance to consumer tastes simply does not work in the current business environment. Companies must listen to the changing needs of customers or risk becoming obsolete.

Artwork by Irene Zhang

Gaining New Wings

Disney’s core product has always been its films. These movies have adapted to embrace new social values over the years. As women’s rights continue to gain headway, Disney has continuously adapted its portrayal of women. This shift is most visible in Disney’s princess films. Between 1940 and 1950, only 39 per cent of American women were working. Disney’s first princesses—Snow White and Cinderella—were confined to the female stereotypes of homemakers (Snow White cleaned for the Dwarves and Cinderella pursued marriage as a means to free herself). At this time, Disney complied with the views of a primarily male-dominant society much like Victoria’s Secret. 

However, as the role of women in society began to shift, Disney recognized a need to change its offerings to coincide with consumer views. Films such as Frozen shattered gender role limitations by incorporating female leads and centering the plots around topics other than romantic love. By creating movies that reflect the values of this generation, Disney was able to attain continued success. Since its release, “Frozen” has earned $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing animation of all time. 

In contrast, Victoria’s Secret has not openly embraced new social views in terms of size inclusion and body positivity. Other lingerie brands such as Savage x Fenty have expanded their lingerie lines to take into account size and racial inclusion. Yet, Victoria’s Secret has the least nude colour options across all major competitors in the market and remains constrained to sizing 30A to 40DDD. Moreover, many larger sizes have a limited selection of offerings. As Google searches for “plus size lingerie” experienced steady growth over 2019, it is clear that there is a need for more size inclusiveness in the lingerie industry and Victoria’s Secret is missing out on a key segment of the market.

Designed by Haaziq Karim. Source:
Designed by Haazq Karim. Source: EDITED

Victoria’s Secret also faced backlash about their lack of diversity in their yearly fashion show. Outrage heigthened in 2018 after VS’s CMO Ed Razek justified the exclusion of large sizes and transgender models in the show due to Victoria’s Secret’s wish to create a “fantasy” show. Due to the negative public view of the show and it’s ideals, the show was cancelled in 2019 after 24 years. In attempt to recover, Victoria’s Secret hired a transgender model. It was again met with hostility due to the inauthenticity of this action when paired with the CMO’s earlier commentary.

In contrast, Disney has been creating fewer licensed costumes labeled as “girls” or “boys” in recent years in order to create a more gender inclusive brand. Disney has also recently announced their first official LGBTQ character in the movie Onward. This shift exemplifies Disney’s ability to embrace changes in social values. Unlike Disney, Victoria’s Secret has failed to adapt to changing values and culture. By doing so, Victoria’s Secret has become a trend follower rather than a trend-setter which has caused them to lose market share to companies who are more willing to adapt.

Repairing Damaged Wings

The primary reason for Victoria’s Secret’s failure is simple: they aren’t adapting. While Disney has listened to its consumers and made changes over time, Victoria’s Secret has remained unchanged, waiting to attract a dying breed of consumer to identify with an outdated value proposition. On the other hand, Disney’s ongoing success with the use of a flexible, multi-faceted value proposition demonstrates the need to modernize alongside their audiences. The present marketplace is fast-paced and waits for no one. With competition for market share rising in all sectors, companies must listen to consumers’ changing needs or risk becoming obsolete. In order to repair it’s damaged wings Victoria’s Secret will need to embrace new social values and consider what benefits customers seek from their experience in the lingerie market. The time for Victoria’s Secret to act is now, and we can only hope the Angel’s ears are as large as their wings.