Victoria’s Secret, a well-established lingerie brand, is famous for its lavish fashion shows where top models walk on the runaway wearing sexy underwear and extravagant angel wings. However, the brand is notorious for its strict weight and body fat requirements, which are far beyond the reach for most adult women. It is also not a secret that models picked for the show must endure months of strict dieting and exercise, in some cases even starvation. In the last couple of years, Victoria’s Secret struggled to maintain a market share because of its numerous scandals and competition. Not only has the brand been scrutinized heavily for not paying attention to female voices and for marketing its products to satisfy the male fantasy, but also for its corporate culture of misogyny and harassment. Former chief marketing officer Ed Razek has made disparaging remarks regarding plus-size and transgender models, while Les Wexner, the former CEO of its parent firm L Brands, has come under fire for his close relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein. Additionally, as more women and girls seek comfort and positive reinforcement, the company’s competitors, such as Savage x Fenty and American Eagles’ Aerie brand (which utilize diverse models), are gaining more market share. In an attempt to overcome the crisis and regain the customers’ trust, the brand decided to incorporate communication strategies such as corporate social advocacy (CSA) and influencer collaborations. Victoria’s Secret announced a new initiative called “The VS Collective” with the goal of joining forces with various distinguished influencers and activists to “create revolutionary product collections.”
For many years Victoria’s Secret was deaf to their customers’ requirements for more diversity and inclusion in the company’s products, which resulted in adverse financial outcomes and damaged relationships with its public. According to the relationship management approach, organizations should balance their interests with the public (Ledingham, 2003). Victoria’s Secret lost its touch with customers because it failed to nurture mutually beneficial relationships with young women, whose spending power it relies on. To recover its legitimacy and repair the relationship with stakeholders, the company decided to focus on CSA activities and become “the world’s leading advocate for women,” according to Martin Waters, Chief Executive Officer of the company. Additionally, the company hired influencers to facilitate communication between the brand and stakeholders by endorsing the organizational CSA initiatives.
Corporate social advocacy (CSA) is defined as taking a public stance on a controversial social-political issue by corporations, most often in the form of a CEO statement (Dodd & Supa, 2014). As Dodd & Supa (2014) explain, social advocacy is a relatively new idea that developed from the intersection of strategic issues management and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Strategic issue management is focused on ensuring that a company behaves in the manner that its stakeholders feel it should (Dodd & Supa, 2015), while corporate social responsibility is defined as voluntary actions taken by the organization to benefit the society (Balasubramanian et al., 2020). Companies are increasingly collaborating with social media influencers (SMIs) to promote their CSR projects on social media (Kesavan et al., 2013). We believe this trend will continue with CSA activities. By positioning the brand as a leading global advocate for female empowerment, Victoria’s Secret is trying to rebuild a mutually beneficial relationship with its audience by investing in social issues relevant to its customers and society.
Despite the risk of taking a stand on controversial subjects, many brands are starting to speak out about various social and political concerns, and Victoria’s Secret is no different. However, in the era of social media, when organizations would do anything to get customers’ attention (Khuntia et al., 2016), individuals’ distrust of corporations is growing. For that reason, Victoria’s Secret included credible social media influencers in their “The VS Collective” project. Influencers have become increasingly popular as brand communication channels because of their ability to reach mass audiences with similar interests (Uzunoğlu & Kip, 2014). Moreover, nowadays, individuals are more prone to trust their favorite and chosen influencers than companies. The purpose of “The VS Collective” project is to reconnect the brand with female customers who have grown tired of the brand’s narrow beauty standards. For this reason, some of the influencers working on this project would usually not be tied to the brand, such as Megan Rapinoe, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Valentina Sampaiao. Ms. Rapinoe, for example, is already known as an LGBTQ activist, a women’s pay equity advocate, and an outspoken Trump critic. She is also a renowned soccer player who can bring Victoria’s Secret closer to customers the brand never targeted before. Ms. Chopra Jonas is an Indian actress and producer. She is internationally known for her environmental activism as well as her work on girl’s empowerment as a UN ambassador. Moreover, among the new ambassadors, there is also a trans model Valentina Sampaiao. The great communication practice of this project is reflected in Victoria’s Secret’s collaboration with diverse trusted voices in the female empowerment area.
However, the success of this campaign will be determined not only based on its communication strategies but also on the actions that the company is actually going to take towards empowering all females, regardless of their size, shape, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As Grunig (1993) asserts, both symbolic (communication-based) and behavioral (action-based) relationships are necessary if the organization wants to achieve its mission and goals. For that reason, it would not be enough that Victoria’s Secret hires influencers and activists who would endorse the brand’s CSA initiatives, but it must take steps towards female empowerment. Therefore, we agree with Bhagwat et al. (2020), who argued that the concept of corporate social advocacy needs to include corporate actions as well. Is this an attempt of inclusivity and diversity washing, or is Victoria’s Secret really devoted to changing the narrative of female beauty? We would have to wait and see their next steps and the spring collection that is expected to be launched in May 2022.
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Victoria’s Secret [victoriassecret]. (2021, June 16). We are proud to announce an exciting new partnership platform, #VSCollective, designed to shape the future of Victoria’s Secret. [Photograph]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CQMqudWBRwL/?hl=en