Anthroholics: How “Lifestyle Brands” Market to Women

Full disclosure: Anthropologie, their website, their catalog, their backlit models, their barfy animal designs, their faux-vintage everything, their impractical housewares, their head-scratch-inducing styling, their might-as-well-be-full-price sales, their transparent embrace of all things privileged and crusty-rich: it makes me swoon. Like so many other women, something about their kooky marketing draws me like a moth to the seed-beaded flame. I check their website every Tuesday because that’s when they put new items on sale. I’ve never personally subscribed to their catalog, but the renter before me did (thanks, Carly B.!), so now I get it every month. Though I can’t afford basically anything they sell, I pick out my favorites, I put them on a “wish-list” I’ll never show to anyone, and I get all dejected when they sell out of yet another pair of  leather clogs I was never going to buy anyway. I do all this knowing they are playing on my deep,  unfulfilled wants, so I get to browse Peter-Pan-collared jackets with the bonus of simultaneously hating myself.

It’s no secret that much of what is marketed to women is tagged “aspirational.” Vogue, queen of the American glossies, is an obvious culprit, though I would argue that the likes of Anthropologie, J. Crew and Free People are more devious. When I infrequently read Vogue, I have no delusions about whether or not I can afford any of the various gold-dipped, animal-hide fineries, or the creams made from precious metals, or a “Louis XV provincial commode.” But Anthropologie has set its price point a few steps below “real” designers, allowing women to fantasize that some day, when they get that raise, when they move to Lapland and buy a cottage, they too will rock the dapper look of a well-insulated countrywoman out for a stroll. Anthropologie may claim that the brand is marketed to “settled-down career women in their 30s and 40s, with an average family income of $200,000 a year*,”but I don’t buy it. Troll the internet and you’ll find entire blogs devoted to Anthropologie, accompanied by photos of women ranging from late teens to middle-aged trying on tatted sweaters in dressing rooms, inevitably followed by the phrase, “I really hope this goes on sale.” Brands like Anthropologie achieve success by doing just this: hooking lower-income devotees who will scrimp and save to buy their products.

“Lifestyle brands”  target women more aggressively than men (just check out the J. Crew catalog–the first two-thirds is always devoted to women, usually shot in interesting locales, while the last third or so shows men glowering in front of a beige wall). Why? Women are obviously held to a higher standard of physical appearance, and women’s fashion tends be more varied and driven by trends than men’s fashion. Stores like Anthropologie successfully incorporate elements of home décor because women are still expected to be the more domestic of the sexes. We could even just accept that women have internalized society’s expectations and really do exhibit more materialism and vanity, period.

I hate the easy answers, though. An article about the success of Anthropologie, published in 2002, gave me a bit of insight and helped put words to the manipulation I always feel when I browse Anthropologie’s bright, shiny wares. The story interviewed several of the brand’s higher-ups, who weren’t bashful about their marketing strategy, which involves appealing to a certain kind of woman, or, I would argue, an idea of a woman. According to Glen Senk, then-president of Anthropologie, “She is very aware–she gets our references, whether it’s to a town in Europe or to a book or a movie. She’s urban minded. She’s into cooking, gardening, and wine. She has a natural curiosity about the world. She’s relatively fit.”  If that isn’t an uber-specific description of a grown-up Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I don’t know what is. The article is littered with more references to this mythical woman and her mythical hobbies and tastes, including this observation I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: “If the tween anthem is Britney Spears’s ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,’ the Anthropologie customer’s plaint is more Alanis Morissette: “˜I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving the peace sign.’ “ I love me some Alanis, but otherwise, no comment.

Anthropologie is not the first brand to cater to a particular type of customer, or to attract a base whose income is out of line with the products’ prices. However, I think they’ve successfully distilled an aspect of marketing that I find sexist and bothersome: products are marketed to men as functional accessories, as components they can add into their already-fulfilling lives, but products are marketed to women as the definition of fulfillment, as the very things that help them achieve a particular, acceptable identity. Because the latter is harder to achieve, brands targeting women are not only more intentional about what they sell, but work harder to pull together a cohesive, seductive whole–cue Anthropologie’s wildly imaginative storyboard catalogs.

Wendy Wurtzburger, head merchant for Anthropologie’s women’s apparel and accessories, had perhaps the most revealing quote, “We create a story: Who is she? Where does she live? What does her favorite sweater look like?” That’s right ladies. What your favorite sweater looks like is one question removed from who you are.

6 thoughts on “Anthroholics: How “Lifestyle Brands” Market to Women”

  1. Oh your words ring so true! I’m glad I’m not the only one who goes in and pets all the clothes I won’t spend the money on!! For my birthday, I did get a lovely sweater – on clearance, with my 15%off coupon, it wasn’t so bad. I also brought two friends with me who’d never been, and are now in love. We’ve all signed up for their shopper card, and plan on going for each 15% off bday coupon. ‘Cause we’re classy like that.

    As far as the marketing goes, at least at this point in my life (at 37) I can see when I’m being taken for a ride, and think, “Damn, that’s some good marketing to make me feel so good while I spend my $$!” (Starbucks, Target, Anthro stalk my wallet, I swear)

  2. What you’re describing is called market research. It’s done for both men and women. There’s a lot of sexist marketing out there, but making your product the “definition of fulfillment” is done for every product ever, regardless of the customer’s sex. (Notice that every advertisement for a man’s razor has a woman caressing him — the “definition of fulfillment” indeed). That’s just basic marketing.

    I don’t like it either, but in this case, I don’t think it’s sexist at all. Anthropologie does appeal to women who like design and vintage references. The store does their market research very well, and it’s a successful. I don’t actually see a problem there from a gender point of view. I think the store is too expensive, but that’s my only problem with it.

    Aaand, completely unrelated: I own a ton of stuff from Anthropologie and the most I’ve ever paid for anything is $40 (for a jacket). Their sales are amazing. That’s why young, non-rich women can afford the store. Anyone who even LOOKS at anything but the sales room there is a fool.

    1. Thanks for your input! I agree 100% that market research is employed for both men and women, but I think if you examine the culture of sales as a whole (specifically re: clothing), you’ll find very different messages being sent to men and women. Far more fashion magazines are target to women as to men, and if you spend enough time perusing them you’ll notice patterns: men are often depicted doing things (riding bikes, skiing, reading, etc.) while women are more like hangers or props for the clothing within a wider context of “story” that catalogs like Urban Outfitters, Anthro, J. Crew, etc. like to pull together.

      Also, I agree that Anthro can have some great sales. Still, most prices are too high for me to justify spending X amount on one item.

  3. I’ve lived a rather sheltered life mostly in the mid Atlantic and northeastern U.S. My immigrant parents, relatives and other “home community” friends did not have piles of sales catalogs from Anthropologie or other retail stores like this. Instead we had piles of textbooks and newspapers. It spared me from being sucked into that dreamy world. However I was seduced by the images in beauty and film magazines. The message I took away is that I would never be a part of the worlds depicted. It was out of reach because my hair and skin colors, eye shape and body type would always be the “wrong”. Once I graduated adolescence I no longer aspired to be like these impossibly beautiful and independently wealthy people in their western floating worlds. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger the prepsters were the most “offensive” to me. I’ve always used my sharpies to create my own brand of LOLKat cartoons with snarky captions with my magazines and catalog, and still do so today. Brooks Brothers provides the best fodder.

    I have never set foot in an Anthropologie, just didn’t have the interest. And nothing at RL or TH has ever fit my body’s proportions anyway.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for providing more perspective! While writing this article, I did want to tie in something about how “white-washed” Anthropologie is, but found that I was running out of space. You could write a whole series about how mainstream American culture of all types alienates people of color (and if you wanted to write it, that would be a really interesting submission).

      My family wasn’t very well-off, so the only catalog we got when I was growing up was J.C. Penny, and I never ordered anything. Then I went to a private college with a lot of upper-class students, and that’s when I first became aware of Anthro and the whole culture behind consuming the brand.

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