American Eagle's Aerie just had a gangbusters sales year — and the decade-old lingerie brand said it's thanks to its promotion of body positivity to young women.
"The core of what's happening here in Aerie is really this marketing campaign that's really starting to take hold," Aerie head Jen Foyle said on an earnings call last week when asked about the brand's growth. "The #AerieReal campaign is so authentic and it's really resonating with this young woman today."
Aerie's success stands out in a brutal year for clothing chains from Gap to J.Crew, caused by what Urban Outfitters' CEO said was an absence of fashion trends. The brand's comparable sales, which excludes boosts from new store openings, soared 20% last year and 26% in the fourth quarter. American Eagle saw sales rise 7% last year.
The bra-and-underwear brand has made headlines in the past two years for its advertising, which builds off the phrase "the real you is sexy." It stopped retouching photos and has showcased different body types with models like Barbie Ferreira and Iskra Lawrence, while lending its support to the National Eating Disorders Association. The chain has also encouraged customers to share authentic pictures of themselves with the #AerieReal hashtag.
While its efforts have been met with some skepticism, it's still a departure from teen retail a decade ago, when Abercrombie's exclusive vibe and endless supply of chiseled abs reigned dominant in high schools, and Instagram didn't exist. It's also different from rival brand Pink, which is modeled by the Victoria's Secret Angels.
Aerie "simply listened to what our customer was telling us — they wanted to see 'models' they could relate to and understand," Foyle said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "Our customers want honesty and they want to be heard — social media has allowed us to engage with our girls in a whole new way... We don't believe in flaws and believe real beauty should be shown in a natural unaltered way."
Aerie's marketing fits into a larger trend that includes Dove's "Real Beauty" ads and the "Like a Girl" commercials from Always, said Pam Grossman, Getty Images' director of visual trends.
"The real changing factor here is social media has changed the visual dialogue," she said in an interview. "We see statistics that it really is more females than males who are using image-sharing sites like Facebook and Tumblr and Pinterest, so that means for the first time in history, we have primarily females who are leading a mass conversation. ... That to me is really why there's such a hunger now for authenticity and for representing the female experience in a more genuine way."
Indeed, when Aerie posts photos of models that show rolls or love handles, it receives a flood of praise and appreciation from its followers. Foyle said on last week's earnings call that media impressions related to the #AerieReal campaign rose to 4 billion in 2015, a dramatic increase from the previous year. In her email to BuzzFeed News, she said Aerie sees the best engagement on Twitter and Instagram, and "potential" in Snapchat with its younger demo.
American Eagle didn't report Aerie's 2015 revenue separately last week, but the previous year the brand made up 8%, or roughly $260 million, of the company's $3.2 billion in annual revenue. In the past 12 months, Aerie has seen a 13% jump in new customers, Foyle said in an email.
Rebecca Duval, a retail equity analyst at BlueFin Research, said that part of Aerie's success can be attributed to its marketing, but that the chain is also benefiting from the trend of teens and twentysomethings wearing bras, bralettes, and bandeau tops as part of their outfits. (Just google "bralette outfits" if this confuses you, or imagine Coachella.)
"All these girls are going to festivals, and they're wearing see-through T-shirts or something open or something with scooped sleeves, and so it's really part of their outfits," she said in an interview. "That's another reason why we're seeing even more momentum, because it's such a massive trend right now."
To that point, the Pink brand out of Victoria's Secret has also been firing on all cylinders in recent years, even though the Angels' bodies could hardly be considered average. Parent company L Brands said in filings that they "market products to the college-aged woman with PINK and then transition her into glamorous and sexy product lines, such as Body by Victoria, Angels and Very Sexy."
Similarly, Aerie's Foyle said that its core customer base is 18- to 25-year-olds.
Each brand ends up drawing in high schoolers and even middle schoolers with such positioning, as consumers typically aspire to clothes marketed to the age bracket above them.
Still, Duval said that Aerie's "real body" marketing is unique.
"There were other companies doing it for older women or the 'missy' consumer if you will, but I think it's more new for the teen and millennial consumer, especially in this category," she said. "It's speaking volumes and resonating with these women."