Earlier this month, Victoria’s Secret—which controls 24% of the women’s lingerie market, according to Coresight Research—announced that, after 18 years, it would not be broadcasting its annual fashion show on network television. It’s a major move for the brand, removing its most high-profile marketing event from its home of nearly two decades.
“It’s admitting that the formula is not working,” said Bob Phibbs, CEO of New York-based consultancy The Retail Doctor. “The landscape is very different than when they started.”
The decision to take the show off the airwaves makes sense. Viewership has been declining in recent years, with last year’s show reaching its lowest-ever ratings: Only 3.27 million people watched. Less than 10 years ago, 9 million to 10 million people would tune in.
Along with those numbers, backlash has been mounting, centered on the show’s lack of diverse body types and depictions of women. The controversy came to a head late last year with comments from the brand’s longtime CMO, Ed Razek, who implied that plus-size and transgender bodies didn’t have a place on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk because “the show is a fantasy.”
Beyond words and TV ratings, the public’s waning enthusiasm for the brand seemed to be reflected in the sales, as same-store sales have fallen for the past three years. The brand has made moves to boost these lagging numbers, announcing last year that it would bring back swimwear, a former customer favorite. (Its parent company’s stock jumped 15% recently because of a better-than-expected earnings report, but that’s largely due to the performance of Bath & Body Works.)
Change can only be held off for so long when consumers are demanding it not just with their voices but with their dollars. This makes televising such an over-the-top—and expensive—display hard to justify.
“Showing an unattainable image of beauty is no longer as effective as it once was, and it’s just not the right message,” said Jason Goldberg, founder of Retailgeek and chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis Communications. “At some point, someone has to admit that it’s not working. This whole baby-doll, angel, super-sexed model just doesn’t seem to resonate with shoppers.”
Though the move may be significant, it’s not a complete departure for Victoria’s Secret. The fashion show, after all, will still exist, just not on network television; instead, it’ll be splashed across social media feeds and likely streamed online, giving it plenty of exposure. But Goldberg says that completely walking way from the show entirely—a multimillion-dollar marketing spectacle that Victoria’s Secret spent over two decades building and associating its brand with—would be a mistake.
“We’ll see them walk the tight rope of staying true to their brand of aspirational beauty,” Goldberg said, “but at the same time try to feel more authentic and purpose driven, to weave more elements into the brand that are more effective with younger consumers.”
“However,” he added, “they have to do all that within the context of their brand positioning. I don’t think the play for Victoria’s Secret is to try and pivot and become ThirdLove,” the DTC competitor that’s been nipping away at Victoria’s Secret’s market share since 2013.
It’s possible that Victoria’s Secret isn’t planning a pivot at all, and the move away from network television is more in line with consumers’ viewing habits than criticism of the show’s content. To improve business, it’s paramount that Victoria’s Secret connects with a younger consumer—a generation that consumes most of their media online.
“What we don’t know yet is if they’ll produce that same fashion show and just try to create an online event, build an online audience and leverage influencer marketing to sell the same message that they always have,” said Goldberg. “That is absolutely possible.”
But Phibbs feels that the show isn’t quite the asset that the company might imagine it to be. The first priority, he says, should be deep research into how to connect with the company’s consumers and improve the in-store shopping experience, which is still its primary retail channel.
“We’ve never seen anyone else come up with a fashion show like that,” Phibbs said. “As they’ve seen viewership fall off, we haven’t seen [a competing company] try to reinvent it. So I don’t think that’s the ticket. The ticket is going to be solving what’s going wrong in the stores first.”
He added: “Then you can do anything, because you know who your market is and how you’re going to reach her.”