Usually it takes a major scandal to shake consumer confidence in a brand. But in the case of Vogue magazine it appears that all it took was putting Kim Kardashian on its cover. The reality show starlet graces the April issue in a wedding gown alongside her fiancé Kanye West.
The backlash has been swift and brutal. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar led the charge with a tweet that read “Well……I guess I’m canceling my Vogue subscription. Who is with me???”
Apparently many are with her. As of this writing Gellar’s call for a boycott had been retweeted over 8,000 times and favorited by more than 11,000 people. But the outrage has not been limited to Twitter. Vogue’s Facebook page has been inundated with hundreds of angry messages. One reading, “I’m done with Vogue. Subscription cancelled sick to death of Kanye and Kim used to be high fashion, your standards have been highly compromised!!!!!!” had received 146 Facebook likes so far.
Similar comments could be found on Vogue’s website. “I have always purchased Vogue, ever since I was a teenager and I felt like I could always rely on Vogue to inspire me and educate on a number of levels,” wrote one commenter. “I don’t buy tabloids for a reason because I don’t look up to or find inspiration in people with no talent and even less morals. Wow, RIP Vogue. The last bastion of style has fallen today. I’ll miss you.”
Liz Dennery Sanders is the founder of SheBrand Inc., which specializes in helping brands and celebrities, particularly women, connect with key consumer audiences. Sanders said that a brand definitely does benefit from the controversial cover. That brand would be Kim Kardashian Inc. “This is a win-win for Kim. She gets the visibility that she so desperately craves, and she’s associated with a respected prestige brand. This puts her on the same side of the playing field as Anna Wintour, which isn’t such a bad place to be.” But whether it is a win for Vogue is another matter.
Sanders says while it is unlikely putting Kim Kardashian on the cover will put Vogue, a century old prestige brand, out of business, the backlash from consumers should not be a surprise to anyone, including Wintour. “There’s a disconnect between these two brands—they’re not synchronistic—and people can feel it. Vogue is chic, prestige, high end and sophisticated, while Kim and Kanye are mass, reality TV, and often described as ‘tacky and tasteless.’”
But she also explained that while putting Kimye on the cover might not have been coherent with Vogue's brand, it was a clever move. “Wintour’s decision to put Kim and Kanye on the cover of the magazine was 100% business. At the end of the day, she’s a very shrewd businesswoman and her goal is to sell magazines and dominate market share. Between the two of them, Kim and Kanye have more than 30 million Twitter followers. Vogue has only 3.6 million. It’s a numbers game.” Sanders predicted that the controversy will help the magazine move more copies than usual which is exactly what Vogue wants, and also needs in an age in which the internet is cannibalizing the print magazine business.
But recent reports raise questions on whether or not the Kardashian name and image can continue to move magazines, or frankly any product anymore. According to The New York Post, in December US Weekly sold 100,000 fewer newsstand copies than usual after running exclusive photos of Kim Kardashian’s first major photo shoot after giving birth. The same article cited other tabloids that have seen their circulations drop significantly after putting various members of the Kardashian family on their covers in recent months. Additionally viewership of the family’s reality show has sunk to an all-time low with less than half of the viewers tuning in this year than tuned in for its 2007 premiere.
It’s worth noting that the best selling Vogue issue of all-time was the 1992 issue featuring multiple supermodels on the cover. While it’s tough to find numbers on the worst selling American Vogue cover ever, one of the worst selling in recent years featured Ryan Lochte, Serena Williams and other Olympians. Rihanna’s cover also sold poorly. Serena Williams and Rihanna are undoubtedly famous women and have substantial followings. But are their followings and their brands synonymous with Vogue? The numbers seem to indicate readers don’t think so. Yet neither woman is nearly as controversial or as ridiculed as Kardashian, which may not bode well for sales of Vogue’s latest issue.
So what will Vogue do if Sarah Michelle Gellar and other vocal longtime fans follow through on their threats of a boycott? Steve Sigmund, a crisis communications expert said that Vogue would be wise to ride out the storm. “As a ‘crisis,’ this isn’t a fundamental life safety issue like GM or Tylenol that presents a question of whether a company values the lives of its customers,” he said. “It isn’t even a basic identity issue like New Coke where a brand with real customer loyalty and value abruptly changed what it was. Those are the types of crises that require immediate action and change.” He also noted that having Kanye West on the cover would likely temper some of the brand identity criticism. To Sigmund’s point there were commenters who seemed to take comfort in pointing out that Kardashian had to attach herself to him to land the cover, because it would not have been within reach on her own. After all, West may be considered controversial but he has also long been affiliated with high fashion.
But some female Vogue consumers I spoke with do see this as a serious brand identity misstep. One reader says, “A Vogue cover used to be something aspirational. Thanks to Kim Kardashian, it’s not anymore.” A former staffer of Conde Nast, the media conglomerate that owns Vogue, said while she knew the cover was coming that didn’t stop her from being horrified by it and hoping it tanks at the newsstand. Of Kardashian she said, “I don’t even dislike her for the sex tape. It is the pure narcissism, shameless self-promotion and lack of any accomplishment or substance.” She also said she sees this as tainting the once great brand of Vogue. (She requested anonymity due to her ongoing work in the media business.)
Of course it is also possible that Vogue’s brand will survive this controversy unscathed. After all, as Sanders said, “Vogue is a solid, credible, fashionable brand that has been around for more than 100 years. It has a long and lauded history of prestige and glamour.” But it is possible that another brand may not. The second most common theme sounded by angry Vogue readers behind “Boycott!” was “Anna must go.”
On the magazine’s Facebook page, the message “Anna Wintour….it’s time to step down…” received over 100 likes, while another commenter on the magazine’s website wrote, “Anna Wintour just jumped the shark.”
Wintour, clearly anticipating the heat, wrote in her Editor’s note, “As for the cover, my opinion is that it is both charming and touching, and it was, I should add, entirely our idea to do it; you may have read that Kanye begged me to put his fiancee on Vogue‘s cover. He did nothing of the sort. The gossip might make better reading, but the simple fact of the matter is that it isn’t true.”
Wintour is one of the most powerful people in fashion. It is unlikely one misstep will change that, particularly if Wintour steers the brand back to its core mission by putting a fashion forward woman that is both inspirational and aspirational on the cover soon; perhaps someone like recent Academy Award winner Lupita N’yongo.
(One New York magazine commenter said in response to the Kardashian cover, “I don’t know if I want to live in a world where Kim Kardashian gets the cover of Vogue before Lupita N’yongo or Kerry Washington.”)
A number of people I spoke with predict that the Kimye cover will sell very well even though many are rooting for failure. The reason? Because Kanye West and the Kardashian clan will see that it does, even if it means buying thousands of copies themselves.