In August of 2021, Victoria’s Secret announced their intent to completely rebrand. Known for their flashy lingerie and over-the-top fashion shows, the company was facing both steadily decreasing sales and public backlash after connections were found between former CEO (and founder) Leslie H. Wexner and Jeffrey Epstein. Now under the leadership of Martin Waters, the company was rebranding itself to refocus on its target market, letting customers themselves define what is sexy.

Recently, I received several Victoria’s Secret advertisements on multiple social media platforms. “We’ve changed,” reads the video ad. “We now know beauty was always yours to define. We see you.” The short clip features women of all shapes, colors, and sizes, modeling simple undergarments and smiling at the camera.

The angel wings are long gone, and Victoria’s Secret claims they intend to keep it that way.

As part of its rebranding strategy, Victoria’s Secret recently launched the VS Collective: a group of seven women with outstanding backgrounds who will both advise and advertise for the company. Among this group is Megan Rapinoe, 35-year-old American soccer player, and Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, 40-year old Indian actress. Rather than define beauty from a male-fantasy centered perspective, the thought is that the VS Collective, along with a new focus on women and what they want to see from lingerie companies, will help move the brand forward and increase sales.

However, some critics are claiming that the move may be too little too late for the company. While the outcome of this rebrand remains to be seen, it is important to note that competitors of Victoria’s Secret have long since taken steps to modernize their brands and let customers define their own beauty. Aerie, a sub-brand of American Eagle launched in 2014, has consistently featured models of all shapes, colors, sizes, and disabilities in their product photos and advertising campaigns. These photos are un-retouched; Aerie’s “be real” motto aims to both feature and market to “real” women, not photoshopped bombshells. Victoria’s Secret also faces increased competition from online brands such as Savage X Fenty (founded by Rihanna Fenty), Skims (founded by Kim Kardashian), and Yitty (founded by Lizzo), which all operate under customer-centered ideals of beauty, letting customers feel sexy no matter their shape or size.

Mark W. Schafer, author and educator, has spoken extensively about this shift towards customer-centered marketing. “Companies are aligning their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values because they know that it's good for business in the long run.” says Schafer in his 2019 book, “Marketing Rebellion.” Customers today demand that the brands they support reflect their personal values. “Survival, in corporate terms, means profits, but today it also means being ethical, treating people well, and taking responsibility for the planet you're inhabiting.” Schafer tells us.

Victoria’s Secret has changed, albeit slowly, to reflect the new cultural values and expectations of its customers. However, there is concern that this move will alienate Victoria’s Secret’s current customer base who enjoyed the kitschy sexiness, while at the same time the move might be seen as inauthentic and “inclusivity washing” on the part of the company. You just can’t win, can you?

Check out photos from Victoria’s Secret’s new branding here.

There is certainly much to unpack with Victoria’s Secret and their rebranding decision. While I can’t predict the future, I think there is much to learn from Victoria’s Secret’s choices, as well as the larger marketing shift towards progressive, customer-centered efforts.

Can arts-based not-for-profit organizations find takeaways from this developing story? Definitely! Here’s how:

We live in a post-COVID world, rife with the Great Resignation, skyrocketing inflation, and economic recession. It is certainly a rough time to be in the business of the arts, meaning that many not-for-profits are finding it difficult to keep selling tickets, to keep engaging audiences, and to keep bringing people through the doors. If this is you, here’s what can be done:

1. Carefully research and segment your target audience.
Like many companies today, Victoria’s Secret strategized to focus their branding efforts on younger generations, who tend to expect progressive social stances from the companies they support. Arts marketers should also consider targeting these groups; younger people have a longer potential of loyalty and are outspoken about brands/ companies they support. In targeting younger women, Victoria’s Secret has shifted to size-inclusive and diversity-inclusive models, reflecting a widely diverse young population in America. The company also recently launched maternity and nursing bras, catering to the needs of new mothers and widening definitions of sexy to what the customer thinks.

You might also consider relevant issues in your local area when analyzing a target audience; are there certain political or social topics that your target audience is likely to be involved in or care about? Offer your voice on these issues, but mean it. Nike took a stand in 2019 when they chose Colin Kaepernick as their spokesperson for their “Just Do It” campaign. Although it did alienate a large portion of their audience, Nike’s sincerity in their actions, supporting social justice and Black Lives Matter advocacy, won them more business in the end.

What target audiences can you appeal to, and what do they care about?

2. Create a marketing strategic plan, and share it.
After identifying your target audience, consider what goals and steps should be taken to reach that audience. Create mission-aligned goals that will help you make change. Provide tactics that show, step by step, how you will attain your goals as a company. Then, share those goals! Tell your customers about the changes you’re making, and get them as excited as you are.

Victoria’s Secret offers some of this information on their website, including goals like diverse mannequins, extended sizes, and representational marketing that they have achieved. However, a better example is provided by the North Carolina Museum of Art: their website lists extensive strategic goals that tell their visitors exactly what they are changing and their end goal. The NCMA’s second overarching goal, “Create authentic, inclusive, and welcoming experiences that engage a broader audience with art, nature, and people,” follows a similar theme to the goals Victoria’s Secret expresses, but includes 12 sub-goals that provide clarity on exactly what the museum hopes to achieve. Sharing this plan will open up a line of communication between you and your customers, and connect to them and their values. Victoria’s Secret could certainly do better on this one, so we can learn from their shortcomings!

3. Be sincere, and stick to your guns.
The same short Victoria’s Secret ad mentioned at the beginning of this blog post includes the message to its customers: “We promise to advocate for you. Now and forever.”

While it’s a beautiful sentiment, what does it mean? This is why many critics feel that Victoria’s Secret is inclusivity-washing (including diversity without intention) just to drum up business.

Your intention is important! Customers can tell if you put on a face without sincerity behind your words. Many companies have felt this recently, especially during pride month. Simply slapping a rainbow on your beer can isn’t going to cut it anymore. This is why it is important to coordinate your strategic marketing plan to your mission and vision statements; if values don’t align, your customers will be alienated even more. Additionally, the goals you create for your company’s brand should not be considered short-term changes to drum up business. It is unclear whether Victoria’s Secret really means it when they say, “Now and Forever,” and only time will tell. In your not-for-profit making these changes permanent is critical.

The case of Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand is going to be interesting to watch. Will the company succeed in returning to the top of the lingerie sector, or will their lofty goals prove to be as hollow as some critics think they are? As a not-for-profit organization, looking to the business sector can be helpful to both model our behavior and learn from the errors of others. Continuing to watch Victoria’s Secret may prove helpful moving forward as not-for-profits fight for viability and engagement.

Caroline Marcyes is a graduate student in the Material Culture and Public Humanities MA program at Virginia Tech.