Victoria's Secret PINK Uses College Students for Publicity—But They're Not Allowed to Talk About It
In the final months of 2018, Victoria’s Secret has become a lace-lined PR disaster. But what does that mean for PINK, its younger-skewing offshoot?
Launched in 2002 with sights set on the teenage consumer, PINK has made its name as something of a cheeky little sister to the uber-sexified brand, the sharper-witted yin to VS’s out-of-touch yang. Sweatpants that say PINK in sequins down one leg just don't take themselves as seriously as, say, a bra that literally has “Very Sexy” in its name. And the brand has put effort into building a rapport with its young audience by recruiting college students as campus representatives to promote all things PINK. Most recently, this has taken the form of a free mobile application called PINK Nation. Originally launched in 2009 but made over this year, the app offers exclusive opportunities for fans on campus, including discounts, events, games, and the chance to participate in what a brand representative called “‘girls club’ energy” in an email.
“PINK Nation members will be the first to shop new styles and be invited to coveted member-only happenings like shopping events, parties, and immersive, Insta-worthy pop-up experiences,” a brand representative said. One such ‘grammable activity, entitled PINK Nation <3’s Chicago, took place in the Windy City in September and featured a concert by DJ and producer Marshmello. Other members-only events on college campuses have included a visit from the PINK Bus, a pop-up shop on wheels that boasts everything from an exclusive PINK Nation capsule collection to logo-branded lattes. Inside the app, users find a “PINK Mantra” (today’s is “Merry & Bright”), a who-wore-it-better poll of models in PINK, the ability to check on orders, sign up for a PINK Angel credit card, and, of course, click over to the website to shop. Under the “Campus” tab, they’ll find content tailored to their own university.
The question, though, is whether women in college actually want any of that. As far as I can tell, they don’t want to talk about it. I’ve reached out to several PINK campus reps to find out more about the real-world applications of PINK Nation: The vast majority either declined to comment or didn’t respond to messages at all. One apologetically lamented that her program manager (a Victoria’s Secret employee responsible for coordinating on-campus initiatives), wouldn’t allow her to be interviewed. Another agreed to a phone call with the caveat that her program manager okay interview questions beforehand; she then said her manager nixed any related to how PINK Nation could stand to improve. After a thoroughly positive interview had been conducted, the rep told me that her manager informed her she could no longer participate. Without using any of her quotes without her consent, suffice it to say, there was nothing in the conversation that could've been interpreted as scandalous or even off-brand.
When asked about any company policy or thinking behind decisions like these, representatives for Victoria’s Secret PINK declined to respond with a comment.
Denying its campus reps the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and experiences with the app is a glaring example of the ways that PINK, as part of the larger Victoria’s Secret machine, ignores its target audience; it de-centers their wishes from branding and product development, even when it comes to an app — a product that is literally built on the concept of user engagement. Even, in the case of PINK Nation, when these users have been hired (albeit without monetary compensation) specifically to promote it. It doesn’t look great.
“I think it makes sense for a brand like PINK [to create an app],” says Ann Handley, a marketing expert and Wall Street Journal-bestselling author. “They’re already huge on Instagram. They already have a massive following on there, so it makes sense for them to try to capture some of that community and bring it into their own platform.” PINK is halfway there, but a platform and an audience doesn’t community make — that requires dialogue, in both directions.
According to PINK’s website, campus reps are responsible for planning and executing PINK events on their campuses, managing a college-specific PINK Instagram account (like Ohio State University’s @pink_osu, which has around 9,000 followers), participating in “style challenges,” and sharing product and marketing feedback with their respective program managers. For all intents and purposes these college students act as representatives for the brand, but not to the extent that they actually speak on its behalf. In exchange for this work, reps are the first to hear about “sweet deals, surprises, and exclusive products” from PINK. In other words, it’s a job dressed up as a fan club.
Hannah, a junior at a public university who declined to give her last name, doesn’t really see the appeal of the app or its offers. At best, she says, she’d use it then lose it. “The concert thing could be cool, but I could also see people just downloading the app for that and then deleting it,” she says, adding what she thinks is a caveat. “The people I interact with aren’t, maybe, the people they’re targeting, though.” Of course, Hannah’s demographic is exactly who PINK Nation is targeting.
As a 20-year-old woman myself, I can’t help but find PINK Nation a bit…disempowering. It’s a little cute and a little fun, but mostly, it makes PINK appear clueless to the desires of millennial and Gen-Z women. A college woman in 2018 is vocal about what she wants from brands, and she’s already leveraging social media to interact with the ones she cares about, directly. This is how customers and fans have made it clear that they want transparency, authenticity, and diversity from the companies they shop. Though an underwear brand is not necessarily obligated to address our gravest concerns, these days it’s rare to find a brand that operates as if its consumers don’t have any. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret and its sassy little sister gave us another year of an archaic fashion show and a lifestyle app selling “girls club” vibes alongside underwear. Frankly, it feels like PINK Nation is underestimating the one market segment it most desperately needs to woo.
“People don’t want to be marketed to,” says Handley of the drawbacks of a brand-specific app. “Sometimes, when companies are too company-centric — in other words, when they try to push their own agenda too much — that’s when people will react that way, as, ‘Oh, this is too much, this is basically just another marketing thing.’” And it’s worth noting that Gen-Z consumers are more tuned into this (or, rather, turned off by it) than anyone. “I do think that what they want is a sense of exclusivity,” she adds. “They want to feel a part of something, so I think there’s an opportunity here for PINK to really play it right, to be a little bit more subtle in how they’re pushing themselves, and really, to make it all about the customer.”
Brand representatives say PINK Nation’s monthly active users clock in at over 2 million. And so clearly some people are finding what they want there. Briyanna Marshall, a community college student in Detroit and occasional user of the app, cited discounts as her primary reason for downloading it. (Last week, the All Day Sports Bra was offered for $10, down from $26.95.) When I informed her that PINK Nation also offers access to events, her interest grew. “That sounds really cool,” she added. “It sounds like a club.”
PINK Nation has also announced future expansion plans including a college survival guide — a collection of articles which a press release says will focus on everything from how to prepare for dorm move-in, to midterms, and eventually landing a job — and the PINK Nation Grl Pwr Fund, which sounds like it will be a scholarship, coming 2019. Both of these initiatives have the potential to give the app the dimension of substance it needs to thrive. Also in 2019, the website says users will get “a birthday surprise,” and you can’t get more customer-tailored than that (not to mention, that strategy has been getting shoppers into Sephora stores at least once a year for ages). Some experts, like Diana Smith of market research firm Mintel, believe Victoria’s Secret as a whole is poised to bounce back. "Most major companies go through this," she told BBC of the scandals currently embattling the larger brand. The “Grl Pwr” army using PINK Nation will either be a crucial part of that comeback, or it’ll get pulled down with it.
“[PINK Nation] makes it easier to access and easier for people to know what’s going on inside the Victoria’s Secret realm of things,” Briyanna Marshall says. But the question remains: In a few years’ time, will anyone actually want to know what’s happening in that realm?