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Aerie’s Body Positive Messaging is Driving Both Sales and Change

Aerie has been making headlines with its body positivity and inclusivity marketing, swearing off retouching or editing photos of the models it uses in its imagery. This revolutionary and risky approach that started four years ago as a defensive strategy against competitors with oversexualized and unrealistic marketing has not only helped the sister brand of American Eagle Outfitters grow market share—it has also helped set a new standard for how to connect with today’s strong, empowered young females.

The #AerieReal Campaign began when the company’s marketing team had a frank conversation about the unhealthy relationships some women have with their bodies, and how retouching of ads has contributed to the rise of low self-esteem, eating disorders and other self-afflictions.

As such, they decided to create a campaign that would change all of that. The new imagery, with stretch marks, cellulite, love handles, freckles and other so-called “flaws” that are often photoshopped out of fashion ads, struck a chord with consumers, sending store traffic—and sales—on a healthy growth trajectory. What began as a simple change in creative strategy ended up dramatically transforming the DNA of the Aerie brand – something no other mall-based retailer in recent memory has been able to pull off.

Last month, the brand celebrated its best quarter ever. In the three months ended Feb. 3, comparable store sales rose a staggering 34 percent over the prior year, its best quarter ever.

In addition to unretouched photos, #AerieReal uses in-store events, “pop-up tour” visits to college campuses, and tie-ins with charities, like the Bright Pink Foundation promoting breast health, and NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, to connect with consumers.

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Model Iskra Lawrence, one of the most famous of AerieReal’s brand ambassadors, with 4 million followers on Instagram (@Iskra), said, “I connect with consumers directly at store visits and in college events, where we hug, talk, and sometimes even cry […] For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve had a positive shopping experience or have been able to relate to a mainstream campaign.”

Aerie’s mix of “role” models also includes groundbreakers like Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, singer-songwriter Rachel Platten (of “Fight Song” fame), and 18-year-old actress-activist (and soon-to-be Harvard student) Yara Shahidi, are living proof that for Aerie, a woman’s accomplishments are as much a part of her beauty as her appearance.

As Aerie president Jennifer Foyle put it, “These are strong, confident empowered women who celebrate their real selves…No need to retouch these incredible and beautiful women.”

As anyone in the business knows, without compelling product that satisfies the brand promise, marketing falls flat. Aerie’s unique designs, high-quality fabrics and superior comfort and fit result in intimates, activewear, loungewear and accessories that enhance a woman’s inner and outer beauty. When Victoria’s Secret abandoned its swimwear line, Aerie jumped right in, so to speak, to capture a relevant part of that business. Foyle told analysts the brand has many new products, ideas and fabrics in the pipeline, all anchored in quality and value. This year, she said, will be about “newness and innovation.”

After exceeding $500 million in sales last year, Aerie management now has its sights on leveraging its growing brand awareness to reach the billion-dollar mark. In 2017, it expanded its customer base at a double-digit pace, generated more than 8.5 billion median impressions, and enjoyed a 28 percent increase in social media followers. An estimated 40 percent of purchases are made online.

At a time when retailers are closing thousands of brick and mortar locations, Aerie plans to roll out many stores this year under its new “market concept” design. In these stores, shoppers will find an abundance of of bright, open space for events, dressing rooms designed to look like a cool mid-century modern apartment, seasonal DIY displays to enhance the customer experience, and a “personalization station” with state-of-the-art printers to customize products.

Aerie has not completely escaped criticism, however. Some young women have experienced frustration after finding out that Aerie’s definition of body positive and inclusive only extends up to size XL. Others have complained about its limited portrayals of minorities.

As rapid advances in digital technology are making it easier than ever to alter photography, Aerie’s refusal to do so speaks volumes about its commitment to serve a consumer who demands authenticity and reality, not caricature or fantasy. And its example is being followed by others, too.

ModCloth, recently acquired by Walmart, vowed to end photoshopping the same year the Aerie Real campaign began. U.K. brands ASOS and Misguided, New Zealand lingerie house Lonely, and Silkfred did the same. CVS Pharmacy made the announcement to its customers early this year that it would add a watermark called a “CVS Beauty Mark” to highlight imagery that has not been altered. Seventeen Magazine stopped photoshopping models back in 2012 after a 14-year-old from Maine organized a petition with more than 84,000 signatures, and more the magazine recently offered transparency on what happens behind the scenes during photoshoots on its Tumblr.

In perhaps one of the most stunning legislative moves, a new French law went into effect last October making it mandatory to use the label “retouched photo” beside a commercial photo published in print or online when the body of a model has been modified by an image-editing software. Anyone who violates the law could face a fine of up to 37,500 euros ($44,900).

Aerie, named for the nest of the eagle, is clearly not satisfied to be known only for intimates and loungewear. When asked by Sourcing Journal at a retail conference in March whether Aerie plans to extend its body positive brand DNA into ready-to-wear and other categories, brand president Jennifer Foyle didn’t hesitate before answering an enthusiastic “Yes.”

“This is more than just underwear,” she said. “This is about empowerment, loving your real self. Inside and out.”