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Angels no more: Can Victoria's Secret rebrand from unattainable sexy to empowering?

Victoria’s Secret is just the latest company undergoing an image overhaul, choosing a more inclusive message around race and body types. But will the move truly win over consumers?
Image: Gisele Bundchen and Megan Rapinoe
From left to right: Model Gisele Caroline Bündchen in a Victoria's Secret show in 2000, U.S. soccer player and newly-minted Victoria's Secret brand ambassador Megan Rapinoe. Getty Images

Victoria’s Secret is saying goodbye to Angels and hello to activists.

The embattled lingerie brand is undergoing a major rebrand, trading its signature, thin, bombshell models for trailblazing women. The company last week unveiled the “VS Collective,” a group of seven women who will serve as ambassadors and brand advisors, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe, size 14 model Paloma Elsesser, actress Priyanka Chopra and more. The company also introduced a new executive team and a predominantly-female board of directors.

Members of the “VS Collective” will work to create new programs, product lines and content. They will also champion causes for women, including the company's new breast cancer fundraising initiative, called The VS Global Fund for Women's Cancers.

Rapinoe, an LGBTQ and equal pay activist, told the New York Times that the previous Victoria's Secret brand was "patriarchal, sexist" and "really harmful." On the VS Collective site, she is quoted: "so often I felt myself on the outside looking in with brands in the beauty and fashion industry and I am thrilled to be creating a space that sees the true spectrum of ALL women."

Victoria’s Secret is just the latest company undergoing an image overhaul, choosing a more inclusive message around race and body types. In January, the Gap brand Athleta expanded its activewear collection to include larger sizes. In March, L'Oreal rebranded its hair care line Matrix to be more racially inclusive. And in the wake of the pandemic and intensifying discussions around racial inequity, Estée Lauder launched a program dedicated to equal hiring practices, talent diversity and more.

A necessary move toward inclusion.

Victoria’s Secret's move was a critical one, according to beauty brand consultant Melissa Hibbert. These days, customers expect inclusion around race and body types in their products and companies, she said. They also want to define their own sexiness and comfort rather than relying on men’s opinions.

“I think there’s so much controversy linked to Victoria’s Secret, and they’ve been so tied to a specific look, that if they really want the brand to survive and not lose that equity, they have to have a new face. Not just a new face, but multiple faces that reflect the world,” said Hibbert, “You’re either going to get on board or be left behind.”

A similar, successful rebrand was the Dove Real Beauty campaign, launched by Unilever in 2004. The brand boldly unveiled a lineup of models who were diverse in race and body type, which was considered revolutionary at the time.

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“I think Dove really set the tone with their beauty campaigns,” said Cynthia Johnson, founder of marketing firm Bell + Ivy. “A lot of brands looked to their success. They realized the majority of the world is an average size, not this extreme one direction or the other. You can actually have a positive advertising campaign or move in a positive direction instead of selling a dream. You can sell reality. It works, and it empowers customers.”

A report from Mintel found that 63 percent of Americans are inspired by beauty brands that show diversity in advertising, and 73 percent of respondents say the beauty industry plays on women's insecurities.

Consumers aren’t just shopping with their eyes, they’re shopping with their values, according to Jodi Katz, founder of Base Beauty Creative Agency and host of the Where Brains Meet Beauty podcast. Recently, customers have also begun to expect to have conversations with their brands on social media, and be heard.

“These days, it’s not enough just to occupy space in the mall. No one is going to the mall anyway. They need to give me the reason to believe that they’re the right, purpose-driven choice for me,” said Katz.

A lot of work to do.

Victoria’s Secret did not respond to requests for comment about the rebrand, but recently admitted to the New York Times that they were “slow to respond” to changing times. It will take a comprehensive effort to sustain consumer trust and ensure that the rebrand seems authentic, according to Becca Post, founder of the national branding agency Helen & Gertrude.

“It will take more than changing up marketing messaging,” Post said. “It’s down to details like, ‘how do the cashiers in the store feel?’ You can’t just do a one-and-done and say ‘oh we’ve changed.’”

Post pointed to the successful rebrand of Aerie, which launched an inclusive ad campaign in conjunction with new products and stores in 2014. The company saw considerable sales increases as a result.

“Aerie really took a step back. They launched their new stores and lines all together while putting out the #AerieReal campaign. They launched an entire experience instead of trickling out one campaign at a time,” Post said.

Johnson encouraged companies to lean into their rebrands, even in the face of skepticism. She pointed to Gillette's 2019 “The Best Men Can Be” campaign, where the men’s razor company released a series of videos that addressed toxic masculinity. After facing backlash, the brand didn’t quite throw itself into the cause, she said.

“Gillette sort of apologized and lost both sides. No one wants to support a brand that teeters on the line. When there’s backlash of any kind, some brands start to flip-flop,” Johnson said. “Instead, know who you’re speaking to, and lean into it. People don’t like change, but choose a side.”

Not going anywhere.

Competing, newer intimates brands like Savage X Fenty and Thirdlove have built their identities around diversity and consumer empowerment since their inception, said Hibbert, giving them an advantage in the space. However, Victoria’s Secret has major, institutional market recognition.

“They own the cultural influence of sexy. Victoria’s Secret isn’t going anywhere,” Hibbert said. “In a year or two, I think they’ll start to see the successes of this rebrand. It’s not going to happen overnight. I’m optimistic.”

Going forward, Post advised companies to be proactive and adaptable when it comes to rebranding, rather than waiting for sales to dip.

“So many brands are doing this as a reaction, rather than being a thought leader,” said Post. “Companies don’t have to wait for a crisis to do a rebrand.”