THE BLOG
10/17/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Why Brandy Melville Should Listen to Its Plus-Size Fans

Brandy Melville offers fashion for "diverse California girls." And in Brandy Melville's opinion, this diversity is reflected in one size: small.

I don't think it causes a negative effect on the body image of any one of our shoppers because anyone can come in the store and find something. At other places, certain people can't find things at all.

Thus spoke Sairlight Saller, visual manager for Brandy Melville, the latest addition to the growing list of Lululemons, Abercrombies and American Apparels -- fashion brands who fail to understand that violating cultural sensibilities by propagating unrealistically thin and tall bodies can undermine their brand's value.

No doubt, Brandy Melville is one of the hottest teenage fashion brands at the moment. Teens love its uniquely Californian thin beach look.

However, branding arguments that reduce Brandy Melville to a symbolic resource for teenage beauty battles easily overlook that brands today are not only resources for conspicuous consumption. They also participate in much larger cultural conversations about fairness, inclusion, equality and health.

In the day and age, when a brand's image is no longer authored by the brand's owner but co-authored by a host of cultural brand architects including journalists, activists, bloggers, celebrities and consumers, Brandy Melville's extreme one-size-fits-all policy can easily turn into a full-fledged doppelgänger brand image crisis.

For a growing number of Brandy critics and fashion activists, Brandy Melville is an oppressive ideological force that supports social evils such as poor self-esteem, distorted perceptions of weight, social exclusion and eating disorders.

Like 18-year-old fashion lover Lani Renaldo, these critics also call for a culture of diversity but one which helps combat these evils through more choice -- choice in size that empowers young people to cultivate their own individuality as consumers.

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Fashion blogger and Marie Claire columnist Nicolette Mason


Lani's passionate letter is also echoed in a growing movement of plus-size consumers who demand greater market inclusion and choice. In a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, my colleagues Daiane Scaraboto and Eileen Fischer have shown how frustrated consumers who are excluded by mainstream fashion markets combat entrenched fashion norms and institutions.

One such example highlighted by Scaraboto and Fischer is the so-called Fatosphere conglomerate of plus-size bloggers: "bloggers in the Fatosphere denounce the weight-loss industry, question the rhetoric of obesity as an epidemic and advocate the view that there can be 'health at every size.'"

Their battle against established patterns of power relationships involves using traditional and more recent fashion industry technologies such as photography, blogging and Instagram to appeal to institutional logics such as the logic of art and the logic of commerce. As such, these bloggers are not merely "frustrated fatshionistas." In blogs entitled "Big Fat Blog," "Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes Too," or " The Curvy Fashionista," they present alternative looks, they have a visible impact on the fashion industry and they drive field-level change.

Consumers today engage in efforts to change markets because they can. They feel empowered, knowledgeable, entitled, and they draw from a host of technologies to get their message across. They may not be able to make a difference as individuals. But Scaraboto and Fischer's findings, along with a host of other case studies from music, consumer tech, food and other industries remind us that consumer collectives -- often using well-institutionalized branding and promotional techniques -- can indeed change the status quo.

What Brandy Melville can learn from its plus-size fans is that its brand is meaningful to more stakeholders than its narrowly defined target. And these brand stakeholders are convinced that looking beautiful is not a matter of a thin physique.

When an 18-year-old fashion fan understands that real brand love knows no limit in size, why doesn't Brandy Melville?

Markus Giesler (@drgiesler) is a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business specializing in the study of market creation, innovation management, technology consumption and customer experience design. He has been named one of the world's 40 best business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants, a young b-school star professor on the rise by Fortune, and one of the best recognized experts studying high-technology consumer behavior by Wired. He can be reached at shapingmarkets.org.