instagram/brandymelvilleusa

In 2016, Business Insider listed 33 companies that are “revolutionising retail”, and in amongst Zara, Amazon and Nike was Brandy Melville. Brandy Melville was particularly singled out for two things: its incredibly successful marketing to its target customer, and the controversy associated with its sizing policy.

Launched in the 1980s in Italy, Brandy Melville has grown to be successful across the world, with its carefree, Californian aesthetic now almost ubiquitous. A Piper Jeffray survey in 2014 found that it was the most popular brand among teenage girls. Incidentally, I think it was in 2014 that I first went inside a Brandy Melville store with a group of friends after one of them insisted we couldn’t just walk past Brandy Melville

Interestingly, their marketing strategy is one of the most unusual aspects of the brand. Brandy Melville don’t do any traditional advertising at all, relying solely on Instagram and word-of-mouth to reach new customers. For their target market – teenage girls, who have grown up with the internet and devote more attention to social media than other sources of advertising – it makes sense that this would be an effective strategy. Indeed, their Instagram numbers back this up – the @brandymelvilleusa account alone has 3.9 million followers. Not only that, but the pictures on their Instagram page look like candid photos, or even snapshots, of friends hanging out, an aesthetic that appeals to many modern teenage girls more than a meticulously styled photo-shoot.

instagram/brandymelvilleusa

Their understanding of their target market is most likely due to their particularly high level of engagement with it: their entire product research team is made up of teenage girls. Kjerstin Skorge, a 16-year-old from the product research team, told Racked in 2016, “"Product research is made up of all teenage girls. There's about 20 of us. Let's say there's a cut of a T-shirt that's doing really well, they'll ask our opinion on it. Do we like it? Should we make more? If so, what colours? Should we do long-sleeve? Short-sleeve? Cropped? Not cropped? Would this T-shirt be better in this material? There's all kinds of things that we get asked, and we give our honest opinion." Skorge also reported that they were asked to come up with their own ideas and images that they thought would sell well.

Girls such as Skorge are often those who appear on Brandy Melville’s Instagram accounts, in lieu of professional models. The photos are also often taken by young women – in the same article as Skorge, photographer Emma Simms is interviewed, who was recruited at age 15 as a photographer and member of product research after the marketing team came across her Instagram account. This part of their strategy is impressive, and it undeniably works.

instagram/brandymelvilleusa

The fact that their models are ordinary teenagers, and that they post pictures of them with their friends on Instagram rather than photo-shoots, contributes to an image of attainability. But do these models really look like ordinary teenagers? While the posts on their Instagram are more casual than a traditional photo-shoot would be, they cannot be said to be truly representative of most teenage girls. Those that feature are almost all white (and were all white until recently), and very thin.

Presenting this look as normal and attainable adds to social pressures already faced by their target demographic. As a teenager, I was often told about how models in photo-shoots are always photo-shopped and styled by professionals. But as the current generation of young women are growing up, fashion advertising is taking place more and more in the form of influencers modelling clothes in everyday life, a style which Brandy Melville leans into. It always seemed harder to me to dismiss such natural-looking photos as unrealistic, precisely because in a lot of ways they look so normal.

Yet perhaps even more harmful to Brandy Melville shoppers is the fact that their products only come in one size – as signs around their shops proclaim, “one size fits most”. However, for Brandy Melville, this one size is roughly a UK 6 or 8, when the average clothes size for a woman in the UK is a 16.


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This is a move reminiscent of Abercrombie & Fitch, which could be described as something of a predecessor to Brandy Melville in terms of its popularity, and also in the controversy it has sparked. It also did not stock larger sizes, and CEO Mike Jeffries publicly stated that “a lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” Abercrombie & Fitch suffered for this in terms of its financial performance in the years after these statements became public, but Brandy Melville is currently still going strong – even though it is based on the same kind of exclusivity.

Essentially, Brandy Melville presents itself as exclusive to people who look a certain way. Their success seems surprising in light of this, given that modern consumers tend to be highly aware of, and concerned with, issues around diversity and body image. The attainable aspects of their image serve primarily to create the sense that Brandy Melville does things differently: they mask the exclusivity that they share with so many fashion brands.