Victoria's Secret Faces Dilemma: Get Woke, or Die Trying

December 5, 2018

By Carlo Versano

Not too long ago, the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was a major television event.

After all, what other shopping-mall brand had its own network broadcast special that didn't involve fireworks or a parade? Viewers tuned in to see the world-famous models scantily-clad in lingerie strut down the runway as A-list pop stars pumped up the crowd. It was a singular vision of beauty, marketed to both men and women (but mostly men) ー and it worked. For the network that aired the show, it was a ratings sure-thing. For the brand, it was an hour-long infomercial, just in time for the holidays.

L Brands ($LB), the corporate parent of Victoria's Secret, had a $100 stock three years ago. Sales at the lingerie brand were approaching $8 billion. The fashion show averaged around 10 million viewers.

That was then.

This year's fashion show, which was taped nearly a month ago and aired last Sunday, drew its worst ratings ever, just 3.3 million total viewers. A million more people watched an NCIS rerun in the same time slot.

The show's debut on ABC after years on CBS capped a month of travails for V.S., which included a major backlash to comments made by L Brands CMO Ed Razek. He told Vogue that Victoria's Secret would not put "transsexuals" or plus-size models in the show because it would ruin the "fantasy." A couple days later, CEO Jan Singer stepped down, and the company cut its annual dividend in half, riling investors.

But it was Razek's tone-deaf comments that acted as a millstone around the brand's neck and seemed to encapsulate the feeling among some that Victoria's Secret was chasing a customer from a bygone, less-woke era.

"That has been causing them grief ever since," said Fashionista's deputy editor Tyler McCall in an interview on Cheddar Monday.

Halsey, the singer who was among the performers at this year's event, blasted Victoria's Secret for "a lack of inclusivity." That sentiment was echoed across social media in the days after Razek's interview was first published.

But for L Brands, there was a larger problem at hand. For years, the fashion show could be counted on to deliver heaps of free press and attention in the form of social media posts, McCall noted. But engagements during Sunday's show were down sharply.

"Last night it was really quiet," McCall said, who watched the show while monitoring her social feeds. "It seems like they're getting declining interest."

L Brands did not respond to Cheddar's request for comment.

To be sure, the problems at Victoria's Secrets extend beyond the catwalk.

A rise in new lingerie brands that present a more inclusive and size-diverse view of female beauty is beginning to eat into Victoria's Secret's market share.

L Brands shares are trading around $33 as upstarts like Rihanna's Savage X Fenty, ThirdLove, and American Eagle's Aerie line, as well as the athleisure trend, grab consumers' attention ー and their dollars. Year-over-year sales tell the story of a brand beginning to lose relevance in the eyes of its customers.

When a group of millennial Cheddar employees were asked what words they associate with the brand, they offered: "unattainable," "unrealistic," "not cool."

An analysis commissioned by Refinitiv for Cheddar found that Victoria's Secret same-store sales were down eight of the last 10 quarters. Meanwhile, competitor Aerie has been consistently showing growth. In the second quarter of 2018, Victoria's Secret comps were down by 1 percent, while Aerie's were up 27 percent.

"Victoria's Secret's fashion has become stale," said Jharrone Martis, director of consumer research for Refinitiv.

Just as Victoria's Secret lost its grip on consumers, Aerie developed a marketing campaign that struck a chord with millennials. Martis noted that Aerie's rise in same-store sales coincides directly with its new advertising strategy, which doesn't touch up photos and highlights "women in their real bodies."

"That campaign put them on the map," she said.

All the while, Victoria's Secret clings to a vision that doesn't match the bodies or tastes of modern women, according to McCall, the Fashionista editor ー one that, it bears noting, was created decades ago, largely by men.

Still, L Brands benefits from its dominance of the market, accounting for more than 60 percent of all brick-and-mortar lingerie sales, according to the latest data. While it has closed some underperforming stores over the last two years, it still has over 1,100 locations, according to Refinitiv.

"There's probably a Victoria's Secret at every mall in the country," McCall noted. "They have time to turn things around."

Martis said Wall Street analysts are hoping that 2019 brings a turnaround under the leadership of new CEO John Mehas, who comes from Tory Burch, a line that has resonated with young women. She expects he may resurrect Victoria's Secret's swimwear line, which was cast aside during the recession. Recent strength in sleepwear sales ー Martis said she witnessed it firsthand on Black Friday, as customers loaded up on camisoles and pajamas (at full price) ー may also signal the direction Mehas intends to take the brand.

But younger customers are fickle, and they aren't afraid to abandon retailers that don't align with their lives or represent their values.

"Millennials are the biggest portion of the consumer group," Martis said. "You can't alienate them."