For our 60th episode of Earned, we’re bringing you a titan of the retail industry: Craig Brommers. Craig is currently the CMO of Gen Z-favorite apparel brand American Eagle Outfitters, but his previous work experience spans across iconic brands like Calvin Klein, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Speedo.
We start the interview by learning how American Eagle has navigated shifting momentum around legacy social platforms following the rise of TikTok. Craig also shares why the brand is investing in another Gen Z favorite platform: Snapchat. We then hear Craig’s take on augmented reality, and why he thinks it will become a key way to provide unique retail experiences. Next, we ask Craig what qualities he’s consistently observed about iconic brands that help them stand the test of time, before switching gears to the future of retail in today’s digital world. We then dive back into TikTok, and Craig emphasizes that brands looking to make a splash on the creator-led platform need a “creator-first” approach. To close the show, Craig gives sage advice to those looking to grow their career.
We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Iconic brands run towards who they are”: How Iconic Brands Stand the Test of Time
Conor Begley: You've spent a lot of time at some of the most iconic apparel brands in the world. I think one of the more interesting things you said in terms of American Eagle, is you've got this panel of two thousand 15- to 25-year-olds that you can survey at any time. You know who your target audience is, and are laser-focused on that.
What have you seen across these other brands—whether it's Calvin Klein, or Abercrombie & Fitch, or Gap, or Speedo? Because these are brands that have stood the test of time. You kind of assume that brands will do that, but there's a lot that die, or become a shadow of what they were before. What have you seen that has been consistent across these iconic brands that has made them stand the test of time?
Craig Brommers: Iconic brands run towards who they are, although you have to adapt your storytelling to modern times. I think that's why a company like American Eagle, or a brand like Calvin Klein, has actually stood the test of time: at the root of who these brands are, they haven't actually dramatically changed from their founding in the late seventies. I think when you try to adapt too much to whatever is hot at that very moment, and forget who you are, you can get in trouble pretty quickly. So as I reflect back on all of the great brands I've had the privilege to participate in, you have your brand book, you know who you are, you have some guardrails, but you modernize the way that you're expressing yourself, and you really understand who that is. American Eagle was ahead of its time, and it’s actually probably the antithesis of what we were at Abercrombie & Fitch. Back then, A&F was exclusive, “cool kid.” We told you what you wanted to look like, what you should wear. And back then the store associates were actually more focused on looking good and making sure the product was displayed properly, but honestly there was not a lot of customer service going on.
What American Eagle was able to do is flip that upside down and be more inclusive, [and encourage consumers to be] your true self. Our product is the blank canvas from which you can express your true self. I think that's only evolved further over the last year or two, when people are expressing themselves in the digital world—Metaverse, gaming, whatever it may be. So to answer your question directly, iconic brands tend to have a very clear vision of who they are and stick with that through time. I think that's part of the secret sauce of success.
Why TikTok, a Creator-Led Platform, Requires a Creator-First Marketing Approach
Conor Begley: I've been asking this question a lot, because I think TikTok is an interesting channel in that it’s growing very, very fast, and I'm a huge advocate of it. But at the same time, I think that because they are promoting the most entertaining content, rather than just the content from the people that you follow, it makes branded content from creators more challenging to have the same impact. And we tend to focus historically on organic content, which will do better on TikTok, but there's still just a lot less of it than on Instagram.
What have been the tactics that you guys have found to be successful on the platform? Because I think American Eagle has had a lot of success on TikTok, so what are you doing there?
Craig Brommers: A couple of things. One, creator first. TikTok is a creator-led platform and we have a top-down, bottom-up creator strategy. We have the scale and the budget to be able to work with some of the biggest creators, but honestly, we see tremendous success at that mid and even nano level as well. So I think it's a diverse mix of creators, and [brands should] lean into that community first.
Two, the team is not afraid to try things, and I'm not afraid to say “go try things.” Failure is an important thing here at American Eagle. It's a good thing here at American Eagle. Because if you're not failing, you're not pushing yourself. So I love the fact that our team is not scared, and we've stubbed our toes a few times here or there, but we pick ourselves up, learn from that, and move on.
Three, I think it's a platform that really demands a nimble team. What do I mean by that? Our sister brand Aerie had one of those fantastic viral events. They have a legging for women called the Crossover legging, and a creator—actually not even a creator, like a normal person—posted something about [the leggings] and this thing went bonkers viral, selling out month after month after month. And it wasn't because the team had partnered with this person, but it was about what they did afterwards to fan the flames of virality. So I think nimbleness is another thing. I will also give the TikTok team that we work with credit for listening, for taking feedback, and for understanding where we as an industry and where we as a company would like to go in this particular space. So we're really bullish on TikTok. Clearly Gen Z is bullish as well, because they're spending a lot of time on that platform. I think some of the most exciting days for TikTok are still ahead of us.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 59 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Milk Makeup, Gymshark, Gucci, and Summer Fridays, visit our Earned Podcast page.