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Hey Vickie's Secret...You Forgot to Build Trust

March 11, 2021


Hey Vickie's Secret...You Forgot to Build Trust

Hey Brand, You’ve Changed: Earning Trust Is Key to Peddling a New Narrative

There’s been a bit of a reckoning in brand land over the last few months. Brands are trying to reconcile the issues around trust. People don’t trust them, but they don’t know where else to turn. People are craving diversity and authenticity.

What it boils down to is our customers are looking to us more than ever for guidance. And that means they want to see “the real” brand. They want to know they can trust us. And they want to know that we actually have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with them.

That’s led to a bit of a reckoning about the images and messages brands push on us. Maybe one of the best examples of this is Victoria’s Secret. For decades, this iconic brand has peddled images of flawless, ultra-skinny, aspirational model-like women at us.

The other day, one of their promotions landed in my inbox. I clicked—and I was shocked by what I saw. Here, in a Victoria’s Secret email campaign, were “real women,” greeting me with all their unfiltered imperfections. Raw, real and with all of their beautiful flaws. 

This should be a feel-good moment, right? It should have been a moment to celebrate as the brand finally realized ALL women are beautiful but it did just the opposite. Besides the shock factor, it left me in disbelief and maybe even a little angry..—but not for the reasons you might think.

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

The fundamental issue here isn’t that I’m so used to seeing flawless women that I don’t want “realness” or “imperfections” in my inbox. It’s that this isn’t what I expect from Victoria’s Secret as a brand. They have been blatant about their position on what defines beauty for them. So, it was surprising to open up this email and see this sudden switch. There were models with freckles, plus-size models, Black models and Latinx models. Lots of bumps and skin imperfections. 

Great, right?

Here’s the problem: I don’t buy it. Yes, Victoria’s Secret has hopped on the “diversity and inclusion” bus. Finally, they seem to have heard criticism about overly airbrushed, rail-thin models. I mean, just look at all this diversity and inclusion.

Yet … it feels for me - fake.

That’s why this campaign set off such negative feelings for me. This brand has spent decades telling me that we should want to look like the models in their campaigns.

And now, suddenly, that’s not it? That’s not where it’s at? Now, the flaws we were told made us “less than”—for years—are “in”?

Let’s not get confused here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace “real” women, nix Photoshop, or promote diversity and inclusion. But I’m not ready for this in my Victoria’s Secret emails. I open up their emails expecting to see one thing and get something else entirely. The gap between those two things feels almost like a betrayal.

Skipping Right Ahead to “Diversity”

So, what gives? Don’t I want to see more women who look “like me”? Don’t I want better examples for my kids, more attainable beauty standards?

That’s not the issue here. What’s happening is that Victoria’s Secret has skipped some crucial steps in changing their messaging. The did not build a bridge for me. They haven’t talked to me about how they’ve changed or why they’re embracing diversity, realness, flaws. They skipped right on to “hey look, we hired different models.”

And that’s why it feels so fake. Sure, you put a couple more “diverse” bodies in the ads. But it feels hollow, almost like an exploitation of what we want. It feels a lot like Mondelez’s “humaning” campaign: “oh, we heard you, look what we did!”

Yeah, but you didn’t get it.

What’s wrong with what Vickie’s Secret did here? They didn’t stop to build trust. They didn’t prove to me that they heard and understood the demand. I get the sense there was a bit of panic in the boardroom, corporate brass worrying about falling sales and saying, “How do we stop this?!”

And this was the easy solution. Let’s just change the models without changing the values or foundation of what the brand was built on. It wasn’t because the people in that boardroom really believe that our flaws make us beautiful and unique. This was a desperate move by a failing brand to pay lip service to what customers want.

It’s a PR stunt, a sales tactic.

And it feels gross, ugly, because of it.

It’s like the way companies will pay lip service to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride in June. The rainbows disappear on July 1. Same with Black History Month in February. For 28 days, we get stories of empowerment and pride, and then … silence.

It’s like people think they can support these things for 30 days or so, then say, “Ah, okay, we’ve done our duty.” It leaves people wondering whether brands actually believe what they’re saying. If you can put your support for Black people or LGBTQ+ people on like a costume, then take it off again, do you really support these people?

And that’s what’s going on here with Vickie’s Secret. Since they hopped over the “build trust” phase, I’m left wondering if this is really their brand. It hasn’t been for so long. So has there actually been some kind of awakening? The brand is still about “beauty” or “sex appeal,” but has someone recognized that it can be so much more than what they’ve been promoting? That beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that what makes us unique is what makes us beautiful?

Or is this a PR stunt to get the wolves away from the door? Toss us a bone and we’ll back off? How long will this diversity push last? How long before they go back to pushing the ideals they’ve always embodied?

You Have to Convince Us

Victoria’s Secret did this about-face and expect us to believe that they’ve changed. Meanwhile, we’re suspicious, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

You’ve told us we’re not beautiful for so long. How long until you go back to telling us that?

In storytelling, we can think of it as the heel-face turn. A villain becomes a good guy. Often, this is met with skepticism from the heroes at first. The former villain has to prove that deep down they’ve changed.

Victoria’s Secret seemingly hasn’t taken many steps to fulfill that part. So we’re not wrong to be skeptical, to doubt that a brand has really, truly changed. Especially not one that’s been floundering.

In short, the narrative’s not convincing—not yet anyway. I need to see more from Victoria’s Secret, some kind of acknowledgement of the change. One that goes deeper than including a few video clips or pictures of more diverse, flawed women. It’s a start. But without more support, it feels like someone’s trying to trick me.

I want to say it’s possible for Victoria’s Secret to earn the trust of their customers, to prove they have changed. Beauty is still the core of this brand, so the change in messaging isn’t out of line. It’s a question of whether the brand’s culture supports this initiative at more than a skin-deep level. And that’s where I’m not convinced—I don’t see that the brand’s actually changed.

Victoria’s Secret isn’t the only brand that’s doing this, nor will they be the last. But it’s a great point to keep in mind. If we want to change our narratives, then we have to dig deep and ask ourselves why we want to do that. Is it because we actually believe something different? That we’ve come to a realization or been able to reinterpret our values in a new way? Or are we just trying to drive sales or dodge criticism?

The latter always makes it feel like we’ve “pasted on” our messaging. It won’t ring true for our customers, which is what happened here with Vickie’s Secret. If we’ve really had a reckoning, though, that messaging will resonate with our customers more.

So remember: start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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