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Urban Outfitters: Pushing the limits of disruption

One of Cult Marketing’s philosophies is to strategically disrupt markets. This is critical in getting attention with your target audience and is step one of any successful marketing effort – you must breakthrough the clutter. How do you decide where the boundaries are? When has a disruption strategy gone too far?

Most recently Urban Outfitters got into hot water with a vintage sweatshirt design featuring the Kent State logo and what appears to be spattered blood. Kent State officials publicly decried the tactic. “We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit,” Kent State wrote in a statement on its website on Monday. “This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today.”

Urban Outfitters have struck before with items including a “Ghettopoly” board game; a T-shirt that resembled the clothing that Nazis forced Jews to wear; and a hat that labeled vomiting as “Irish Yoga.”

Other retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch have been famous for disruptive tactics. A&F featured naked teenagers in their catalogs, a t-shirt that agitated the Asian community (“Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make it White”), and had guest articles written by porn stars offering advice on oral sex and other sexual techniques. As expected, many conservatives and members of the religious right were outraged.

So where do you draw the line on disruption tactics?

The Cult view on disruption is based on one primary factor – a keen understanding of a company’s target audience and their attitudes, desires and motivations. One of the reasons that the A&F tactics worked so well is that it appealed to the teenager and college target audiences, not the religious right. In fact, the disapproval of the religious right gave the tactics validity with its target audience. And, while it was considered edgy and inappropriate, it was just about sex which is a hot topic among all consumers, especially the younger consumers experiencing those emotions for the first time.

In terms of the Kent State sweatshirt, our question would be to their millions of consumers that loyally shop the store: Were you outraged by the Kent State sweatshirt design? Will it stop you from shopping there in the future? Our guess is that while the sweatshirt itself may not sell very well, the publicity will create enough curiosity to actually increase traffic. After all, don’t most Americans love a good scandal?