This project is working with the well-known clothing company Brandy Melville (BM), which made the California girls style chic. On the one hand, the label is relatively trendy in younger age groups, and the concept of “one-size-fits-all” is unique compared to competitors in the segment. On the other hand, several news reports and equality advocates opened an ongoing controversy regarding its exclusive brand culture and stereotypical representations of women. Nowadays, information spreads extensively fast. So this is a sincere legitimacy crisis for BM. Since our research is here to support the client from the trouble they met in their growth trajectory, our group has developed both strategies and actions. Firstly, storytelling is brought into place to strengthen the customer relationship and align their values with the environment. Secondly, stakeholders need to be in the centre. In our opinion, social media is BM's tornado. Consequently, the brand needs to engage in the dialogue over there. Thirdly, an agile crisis response strategy for the decision-makers allows them to overcome the current situation, cultivating cooperation with diverse business experts and social movements. Ultimately, the brand becomes engaged in corporate social responsibility and restates legitimacy.
Brandy Melville is an Italian fashion house operating worldwide (LDNFASHION). As the label's strength is attracting young customers representing the stereotypical European, skinny girl, they suffered criticism from several actors in the business. At the same time, their unique selling point is formed upon an idealization of a questionable body image and particular phenotype. So, in which ways can the company overcome these frictions with prominent values in society without hyper-adapting (Hatch & Schulz, 2002)? Due to these allegations, brand legitimacy, which scholars define as the firm acting appropriately, is threatened (Pollach, 2015). Because an organization's social license to operate (van der Meer & Jonkman, 2021) needs to be updated in a continuous process, demanding change (Weick & Quinn, 1999), the cluster of intertwined issues around race, body discrimination, and sexism need to addressed appropriately. Aligning with current practices, this needs to be communicated to all stakeholders involved. Unfortunately, the label evades issue negotiation on these socio-political topics (van der Meer & Jonkman, 2021) and, therefore, fails to listen (Macnamara, 2016) to both the general public and the customers. So they are not in line with the state of the art business practices. We argue that this issue became even more salient when investigative research was published a month ago (Taylor, 2021) since the brand not solely needs to attract shoppers but also talented employees to develop and grow. Otherwise, they might end up in a delicate position, losing market shares.
Albeit they have cultural heritage and an astonishing success story at one's disposal, they do not engage in public storytelling. Therefore, following the theory of Balmer et al. (2009), the desired identity of the organization remains unclear. Thus, the firm is not required to reflect its positioning and beliefs. Moreover, the label does not engage in mimicry (Pollach, 2015) following industry standards. So they refuse to adjust the impression of outdated values illustrated via the products and the employment policy. Consequently, stakeholders could communicate their issues with the organization on various media channels, and further threats for the organization, e.g. negative campaigning, should be prevented. There is a need for adjusting the actual identity and the communicated identity (Balmer et al., 2009).
All these issues heavily correspond with both short and long-term decisions. Therefore, we formulated the following research question:
RQ:How should Brandy Melville approach a strategic new orientation towards their publicly perceived legitimacy to address the brand value issues of exclusiveness, gender and race discrimination?
Organizational problem & media analysis
Organizational problem formulation
Along with the rapid business expansion and increasing popularity among teenagers, Brandy Melville has received considerable criticism on its exclusive brand culture. Also, public and fashion websites, as well as online magazines, denounced stereotypical representations of women. Its ‘one size fits all' slogan appears far from accurate and causes a discrepancy between the communicated and conceived corporate identity. Fashion brands across the board are making moves to become more inclusive in their sizing. Lingerie companies such as Aerie featuring plus-sized models quickly gained market share in the industry by presenting greater inclusion. Although Brandy Melville's performance is private, their Instagram followers dropped from 4.3M in 2019 to 3.4M in 2021, indicating a loss on sales as a popular “Insta-brand”.
Legitimacy becomes an issue for Brandy Melville as the corporation fails to conform to norms and values of acceptable behaviors (van der Meer & Jonkman, 2021). While topics like body-shaming, discrimination, and lowering young girls' self-esteem (Mansikka, 2019) lie at hand, several former and current employees of Brandy Melville even alleged the brand for its racist and sexist hiring practices. However, this could become a legal issue, considering a successful case against Abercrombie & Fitch in the U.S. (Talbot, 2015). Despite the customer dissatisfaction and employee disengagement, BM fails to listen to stakeholder voices. By disabling the comments on its Instagram account BM engages in narcissism, decreasing brand image and customer loyalty. Therefore, the organization needs to improve the strategic communications to stakeholders and the general public to regain legitimacy.
Short explanation of relevant organizational aspects
As a global teen retail brand with 97 stores worldwide, Brandy Melville does not invest in traditional advertising but relies on the efficient usage of online platforms (Mansikka, 2019). Because of the strong Instagram presence, Bloomberg linked the hype with the company's social media presence (Marsch, 2014). Solely, the account in the United States, @brandymelvilleusa, currently (October 2021), has more than 2.4 million followers and is operated to reach the target audience for marketing purposes and image building.
In this context, female imagery has become increasingly diverse, and the idea of body positivity gained ground. Despite the ideals of skinniness and tallness in the fashion world being omnipresent (Bhasin, 2014), only a handful of brands, like Litichevskaya, strive for this modus operandi. Moreover, by combining its strategies of exclusivity, one-size clothing and aspiration via aspirational models on Instagram, the brand keeps promoting the idea of highly fashionable Brandy girls (VanSlette & Waymer, 2016). However, the brand's promotion practices are criticized by scholars as unethical, comparing it to “the country club, where members value the status they achieve from claiming membership to an exclusive club, and others aspire to one day join the club” (VanSlette & Waymer, 2016, p. 133). Furthermore, the company is privately owned, giving them less responsibility towards stakeholder groups, like shareholders and does not allow us to look into their annual report, whether revenues decreased.
Justification of the media analysis approach
In the next step, our idea was to get a detailed overview of the last two years, as upheaval and discussions around discrimination, e.g. the George Floyd protests or the resigning of the Tokyo Olympics chief after making a sexist remark (McCurry, 2021), played a vital role on the media's agenda. Therefore, we searched in English and German on Proquest, Google and Ecosia for online news articles to reflect the global positioning of the firm and a time frame between 2020 and 2021, together with the search string “Brandy Melville”. Here, our procedure is justified through a research question that specifically elaborates the opinion of the actors outside the organization.
Based on the information Kwak (2020) discussed, the brand lost 0.9 million followers from spring 2019 until 2021. Defensively we consider social media platforms as a warning system for the company, which significantly built their business model around them. So, the focus of the media analysis was on articles covering social media. At the same time, this section should thematize the before-mentioned issues the corporation suffers and give us insights into the media's evaluation.
To illustrate the online news site landscape, we chose five articles on Brandy Melvilles' problems related to brand image and brand identity. These reports focus on different aspects of the brand image trouble. They also look at the issues from different stakeholder perspectives. For stating whitewashing, some of the news focused on the stakeholder perspective of the employees. For example, according to Yahoo News, the store managers are more likely to let the white, skinny, female employees stand at the front of the store to communicate with shoppers (Ross & Olding, 2021). Other articles mainly focus on the consumer's perspective when talking about the racial related problems of BM. Various online media report how non-white customers are being dropped out at Brandy Melville's and not welcomed to wear their clothes, according to the environment of the CEO (Harter, 2020; Heute, 2021; Taylor 2021). The media discussed the sexism or body discrimination of Brandy Melville lots of them are also interconnected with the racial problems when reported. Both the articles on Heute and Business Insider also talk about sexism when stating the issue of racial discrimination (Heute, 2021; Taylor, 2021). Also, ChinaNews mentioned that women's anxiety toward body image was being brought out by the brand (Liu, 2021), stating this could threaten the happiness of young females. Logically brand identity is threatened and even lets them face mass opinions issues. Consequently, the framing of BM is negative (Hänggli, 2020).
The most well-known social media scandal for Brandy Melville occurred on TikTok. Even though Brandy Melville became popular through the platform during the Covid-19 pandemic, criticisms came up, and a former employee of BM even exposed the brand for racism and body-shaming when hiring people. A user (Morris, 2020) talked about her working experience at Brandy Melville, and her post went viral. She reported how she got hired by her appearance and how her boss refused a job hunter by her race. This post has generated more than one million likes and influenced many people to shout out to her. At the same time, some users even uploaded videos of throwing all their BM clothes away after this video. However, Brandy Melville did not respond to this post, and apparently, it got deleted by the content creator. So, considering these dynamics, we can see the controversies for Brandy Melville are very present in the western news media. To sum up, the brand is facing severe criticism predominantly from external and formerly internal stakeholders. So, customers, social media and the press are the key actors in the research.
Critical focused literature
As the company does not follow societal norms, the objective is to create a relevant and contemporary literature foundation that illustrates how BM can become legitimate and behave responsibly. In this context, broadly based methods were crucial to the sensemaking of revised theories from different perspectives. Also, one article reflects the company's global expansion. Thus, we discuss detailed insights in this section.
When talking about legitimacy, scholars tend to go beyond the traditional definition of it. According to Foreman et al. (2012), legitimacy nowadays focuses more on the social perspective. Thus the judgment of the appropriateness of the organization from its stakeholders comes up.
Because of this, the organization should actively interact with their related stakeholders. Both functional and dysfunctional opinions are brought out for legitimacy. Decisively, legitimacy is gained through the effectiveness of the organization's strategic communication (Burying bad news, 2017). In this context, Foreman et al. (2012) described legitimacy as containing interaction with various stakeholders. In this case, Brandy Melville should actively monitor relative controversies related to them and actively speak out to the employees, consumers, and other types of stakeholders to gain legitimacy. One literature also describes the interconnection between legitimacy and corporate reputation (Pollach, 2015). So an increase in the latter has a positive impact on the former.Corporate Social Responsibility
Scholars understand Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a practice to regain legitimacy (Dunn & Harness, 2019). As corporations play a crucial role in society, they often promote activities increasing social and environmental equilibrium. Interestingly, global businesses need to embed the actions in a local context to have an optimal result of CSR communication (Dunn & Harness, 2019). For example, studies around the introduction of Brandy Melville on the Chinese market (Wu et al., 2021) indicate a demand for more corporate social responsibility, which confirms the findings from Ngai & Singh (2021) about the country's ongoing development that increases customers' awareness of social issues deriving from corporations. At the same time, recent studies discovered that narrative richness improves CSR performance (Boukes & LaMarre, 2021). Furthermore, Boukes and LaMarre (2021) encourage companies to publish the message on their channels, if this allows them to reach a wider audience.
Code of ethics
Code of ethics, according to Adelstein and Clegg (2015), is the documented, formal and legal manifestation of the employees' ethical behaviours expected from an organization. Also, brand image will increase if these respond to issues consumers are concerned about (Cerchia & Piccolo, 2019). In this context, Adelstein and Clegg (2015) point out that by