Victoria’s Secret’s latest campaign might look familiar to those that follow the brand – the lingerie company’s “Icons” campaign features the likes of Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima and Candice Swanepoel, the supermodels that defined the Victoria’s Secret “Angels” look that reigned in the 2000s.
But there are a few newer faces in the campaign as well, like “it girl” Hailey Bieber and leading plus-size model Paloma Elsesser. That combination of old and new faces highlights a fresh approach for Victoria’s Secret: the underwear giant aims to retake its crown as the leader in lingerie by reminding audiences of its former glory, while also polishing its image to fit into an era when body diversity and inclusivity are core brand values.
The ultimate test for the brand will be the return of its fashion show, which it will air on Amazon Prime next month after a five-year hiatus. The show recently tapped Doja Cat as its headline act and “celebrates the mission of Victoria’s Secret — to uplift and champion women — on a global scale,” according to a press release.
If successful, these efforts could help the brand establish an emotional purpose with consumers.
“One of the reasons why they lost that level of meaningfulness is because they continued focusing on the external look,” says Carmen Bohoyo, North America Industry Executive for Retail, Travel and Hospitality at consulting firm Kantar, of the brand’s decline. “They missed on adding that internal understanding.”
Victoria’s Secret isn’t the only brand reigniting its image with a more progressive take on sexuality. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition has taken to highlighting more mature models and plus-size models in recent issues, with finalists for the magazine’s ongoing model search including Kenyan plus-size influencer Achieng Agutu. The annual Pirelli Calendar has also evolved from simply showcasing racy shots of models to celebrating diverse models, with activist and amputee model Lauren Wasser featured in last year’s edition.
However, those brands are already behind. Brands like Savage x Fenty, founded in 2018 by Rihanna, Yitty, launched in 2022 by Lizzo, and Neiwei, the Chinese brand founded in 2012, have focused on helping customers feel good rather than simply look good, largely by including more relatable, diverse body types.
As it gears up to return to the fashion show format that made it famous, Victoria’s Secret will have to reckon with whether it’s too late for it to adapt to a new era.
Newer underwear market entrants have made a point of relying on the values of inclusivity and body diversity rather than idealized models to sell their items — and the strategy is paying off.
Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand, famed for its “Fits Everybody” line for all sizes and skin tones, is hoping to go public with a 4 billion valuation, while direct-to-consumer underwear brand Parade, known for featuring models of diverse ethnicities and body types, was this week purchased by conglomerate Ariela & Associates.
“Brands that launch with certain values in mind are much more accepted by consumers than brands that have to change what they do, or are linked to a certain image,” says Reshma Shah, professor of marketing at Emory University. “It's hard to change that.”
In 2021, Victoria’s Secret attempted to modernize its image with a pared-down campaign starring the likes of US soccer icon and LGBTQ activist Megan Rapinoe and Chinese American skier and Olympian Eileen Gu. But, by then, the brand had already been marred by allegations of corporate misogyny and ties to Jeffrey Epstein.
The challenge for Victoria’s Secret, according to Shah, is changing the perception of the brand in a way that feels authentic.
“If it's not, then they're never going to change the perception, because people don't think of Victoria's Secrets as an inclusive brand,” she says. “I don't believe that Victoria's Secret really has an image other than the one that says you must look a certain way to be considered beautiful.”
In recent years, Victoria’s Secret sales slumped and the company shuttered dozens of stores, including its Beijing flagship store this year. Other brands have soared meanwhile; Neiwai, the Shanghai-based underwear brand, raised 100 million in Series D funding in 2021 and opened a flagship store in Singapore this summer. The brand has focused on simple, wearable pieces that champion body positivity, and launched a special campaign for International Women’s Day earlier this year.
Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty has cornered the lingerie runway show in Victoria’s Secret’s wake. The brand has hired top models and former Victoria’s Secret Angels since its 2018 New York Fashion Week debut, like Bella and Gigi Hadid, along with models of diverse body types and genders, including a nine-month pregnant Slick Woods. In 2022, the brand was reported to be seeking an IPO with a 3 billion valuation.
Part of what made Victoria’s Secret so successful in the early 2000s was that its models were not relatable or inclusive: the brand sold an escapist fantasy.
Even today, the models that meet new standards of inclusivity are quite far off from the average woman, notes Shah.
“Martha Stewart has had so much work done. I mean, she's 82,” Shah says of the media mogul’s appearance in the 2023 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, where she appears with a face free of wrinkles. Actors in the 2023 Barbie movie, Shah adds, widely praised for its inclusive approach to portraying the doll, are also almost all conventionally attractive.
In that way, brands are able to have it both ways: meet standards of inclusivity, while still speaking to consumers who want to see imagery they can’t see in their everyday lives. Campaigns for Skims, praised for its extended size range, still largely revolve around the impossibly proportioned Kim Kardashian.
“Looking good to others is a key component of that decision-making process when [consumers] choose a brand,” says Bohoyo, adding that brands need to manage a fine balance between consumers’ desire for self-expression and confidence as well as their aspiration to feel attractive.
For some consumers, though, relatability can go too far. “When people saw the Dove models in Times Square,” Shah recalls of the body care brand’s “Real Beauty” campaign in 2012, “both men and women were like, ‘I don't want to see this. I want to see perfection.’”
Victoria’s Secret’s newest campaign — and perhaps its upcoming show — manages to both show impossibly beautiful women while also showcasing models of diverse ethnicities and body types. But whether or not consumers will believe the latter is authentic to the brand remains to be seen.