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Victoria's Secret Pink Adds HBCU Flair

Victoria's Secret Pink Adds HBCU Flair
Collegiate apparel to showcase black colleges
by Marcia A. Wade

July 24, 2008 -- When Victoria's Secret Pink rolled out its nationwide collegiate collection in June, featuring the names and logos of some 33 universities on sweats, hoodies, football tees, and totes, the promotion didn't include any historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This fall, the brand plans to include five HBCUs in the second phase of its collegiate collection.

But, for Amelia Reid, a sophomore at Howard University and a Pink fan, the initial omission was hard to take.

"Going to Howard, where the students are very into academics and also into fashion, I thought 'Wow, this is crazy,'" says Reid, who is studying political science and fashion merchandising. "Here is another company that doesn't acknowledge black colleges. A lot of girls from Howard wear Victoria's Secret and work there also. It shouldn't have been just those typical schools that come to mind when you think of college."

Reid e-mailed Victoria's Secret to express her dismay and was upset when she received a response that she describes as "sugar-coated" and dismissive. Her disappointment materialized into a crusade to bring Pink onto the campuses of HBCUs. Early in July, she started a Facebook group "HBCU Ladies Wear Victoria's Secret Pink Too" in an effort to encourage people to write to the company and complain about the HBCU oversight. By late July, the group had more than 400 Facebook members.

A few days after Reid's initial e-mail, Richard A. Dent III, chief operating officer for Pink, contacted Reid through her Facebook group after someone forwarded him her complaint. "I reached out to her because she was a fan of the brand. I wanted her to know that we were not being insensitive, and we did have a plan," says Dent, a graduate of Florida A&M University's business school and a member of the school's board of trustees.

According to Dent, the first HBCU schools that will roll off the Pink line will be Howard University, Florida A&M University, Hampton University, North Carolina A&T University, and Southern University. "We have agreements with the licensees who handle collegiate apparel for those schools, and this has been in the works for some time," he says. Dent adds that the company plans to include students from the schools in internships at Victoria's Secret, and feature promotions at their homecoming events.

Pink, a collection of loungewear geared toward young, college-aged women, first appeared in Victoria's Secret stores in 2004. Since then, the brand has solidified its success within the parent company, Limited Brands, a retailing behemoth that includes Bath & Body Works and Henri Bendel. Dent says he didn't view Reid's Facebook group negatively. "We encourage people to be vocal [about our product]," he says. "Victoria's Secret and Pink's mission is to have relationships with our customers."

Pink used the size of the university's undergraduate and alumni population, geographical reach, and revenue from royalty sales to determine which schools would be included in the initial roll out, but Dent says that it was always his intention to eventually include HBCUs.

Using school size as criteria for the first round automatically excludes minority populations without considering their spending potential, says Bob Dale, CEO of Chicago-based R.J. Dale Advertising & Public Relations Inc. "They might have been a little short-sighted."

"In terms of distribution through Victoria's Secret's website and catalog in millions upon millions of homes it will be a wider distribution than [HBCUs] have ever enjoyed in any other licensed program," says Scott Bouyack, vice president of apparel marketing at the Collegiate Licensing Co.

Not using an HBCU in the first phase "sparks some interesting conversation," says Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, who joined Reid's Facebook's group. "Victoria's Secret has been very good to women like Tyra Banks and Latino models. I think we should look at the company's history when it comes to African Americans, and I don't feel that exclusion is characteristic to who the company is."'

"Black consumers are loyal to those companies and brands that are loyal to them," says McGhee Williams Osse, co-CEO of Burrell Communications. "African American consumers want to be recognized and respected by corporations where we spend money, and those corporations [must remember] that they are competing for our dollars."

"I can't say that it was unfair," Osse adds. "Clearly it was a business decision, and Victoria's Secret is in the business to make money. I know that we spend more, buy more frequently, and in casual wear, we buy more garments per purchase."

All agree that the Pink brand and all other retailers can't just compare population numbers. They maintain that companies need to look at the buying behavior of these young women, particularly African American women, who are graduates of these schools.

"From a trend standpoint, I would say [black schools are] a very viable audience for Victoria's Secret," Osse says. "It is the type of retail operation that young, socially active, fashion-involved, African American women would be attracted to. I think this oversight is very unfortunate."

As for Reid, she doesn't plan to patronize the company until she sees its promotional tour bus at Howard's homecoming and HBCU products on the racks. "I hope my site's feedback shows that young black girls are major consumers of Victoria's Secret," Reid says. "When I can actually pick up my Howard sweatpants, is when I'll buy Pink again."

Copyright © 2008 Earl G. Graves, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


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