Lingerie is Different: Why Victoria’s Secret and Agent Provocateur are Winning the Marketing Game

Agent Provocateur, featuring Crystal Renn

Sometimes I hear people wonder why it is that certain lingerie brands, particularly Agent Provocateur and Victoria’s Secret, has achieved such a strong foothold in the American public’s understanding of ‘lingerie.’ And I’m always surprised to hear them ask, because to me the answer is simple: they have the kind of marketing that tells a story.

Lingerie seems to exist in a liminal place, somewhere between fashionable and functional and yet lacking many of the advantages of both categories when it comes to marketing. Fashion has the advantage of being bold and flashy, reveling in the new and the public. Functional items are useful, but innovation in the lingerie world really moves fast enough or in a helful enough direction that its marketing can be driven by ‘updates’ like an iPhone.

Victoria’s Secret

Why can’t lingerie just be like fashion? The answer lies in a simple fact: lingerie is invisible. Of course, outerwear fashion brands spend immense amounts of time and money on their designs, lookbooks, PR and advertisements which all create a solid, branded experience. But nothing will match the moment of seeing a friend or a style icon carrying a certain bag and making you feel in your gut that you would be some much more fashionable, put together and confident carrying that beautiful bag with you. (Replace bag with hat/shoes/necklace/dress as it applies).

With lingerie, that moment of identification is so often missing. We so rarely see other people in their lingerie that we have  no points of reference of what it means to wear lingerie and what it feels like. A woman sweeping down the street in a magnificent red coat is an image of that allows us to connect that coat with that attitude and perhaps imitate it ourselves. The woman in red satin panties is unfamiliar, even disconcerting– which is exactly where fantastic marketing by lingerie brands like Victoria’s Secret comes into play.

Victoria’s Secret

What Victoria’s Secret gives its consumers is not underwear– yes, it may literally be a thong and a poorly fitted push-up bra, but they make it clear it really is about sexy. Victoria’s Secret is not subtle about it; they even have several lines that have ‘sexy’ in the name. But they also have their Angels, models who they use to embody all of the ‘sexiness’ that the average American woman is taught to yearn for. They’re out of reach, but they are real– you know the kind of woman you might turn into in the right panties and it’s not anything you’re going to get at Target or a department store even if they’re using the same padding and stretch lace.

Blair dresses up to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Nate-- all does not go well.

Blair dresses up to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Nate– all does not go well.

If lingerie is rarely seen, it needs other, inner reasons to be important. I adore pretty things, which is part of what I love about lingerie– but the catalyst was Gossip Girl, a seemingly silly show, but one where the ultimate in luxury and self-collectedness came from utterly beautiful underthings. For a moment, those fictional characters were an entree into a world of hidden lacy garter belts and beautiful robes. That’s why the Victoria’s Secret Angels are so effective: they have such a strong presence and story that you associate with the brand. Through the lens of the Angels, lingerie itself takes on a more specific meaning than a glimpse in a changing room, the first bra your mother ever bought you or even the underwear of your lover. Loud and clear, the giant images of Victoria’s Secret Angels tell you exactly who the Victoria’s Secret woman is. And if you want to belong to that perfect, larger than life womanhood, that push-up bra may just be your ticket.

Agent Provocateur

Agent Provocateur works very much in the same line, although the characters are less obvious– the strong identity they give to each of their lingerie sets, as well as choosing a well known model/actresses to be the face of each season makes the relationship between individual and lingerie an easier bridge to cross. Even if Agent Provocateur feels like it has lost its footing a little with its latest ridiculous (and somewhat offensive) videos, it continues to do what it promises: to provoke, to be sexual to be for a woman who knows what she wants.

‘Pretty’ might be enough to make someone buy a skirt, a bracelet, a watch– but it’s not enough for them to buy lingerie without already having an idea of the type of person they will be when they wear it. We need to be convinced of lingerie’s magical powers, of its ability to transform us in whatever way we’d most like to change. Lingerie means something when it connects with the body that’s wearing it– first in their imagination and then on themselves.

  1. “We need to be convinced of lingerie’s magical powers, of its ability to transform us in whatever way we’d most like to change” you said it best. I shop a lot at VS because they treat me good, just like one of the girls, and I get to fall to the magical power of lingerie without breaking the bank. I would love to try the lingerie you get to try but where I live we are lacking in those.

  2. Really interesting. As I’ve started to marked my lingerie brand I’ve spent a lot of time looking at who other lingerie brands are and how they market. As you’ve said, lingerie makers/brands need to rely on that image they’re projecting even more than traditional fashion designers because you rarely get a chance to ask a friend (or a stranger!) what type if underwear they’re wearing without getting an odd look.

  3. The sad part of VS is that when it was independently owned (prior to the sale) it had the allure of AP and the quality
    VS has found a niche that its not as tacky as Fredericks and afforable to the masses although with sales and some footwork you can get great brands at less than VS prices

    • Good point Erica! I agree I don’t think labels are putting much effort into helping Retailers merchandise let alone what they do with the Marketing Campaigns. WHich is such a shame it leaves the consumer only knowing about the few brands who do Market themselves well.

  4. I wish many of the UK and American brands would get on board with marketing more toward their customers instead of relying retailers to pick up the slack. So many companies don’t even have promotional material for us to display in stores, and it makes it difficult for consumers to identify with and seek out their brand.

  5. if you think Agent Provocateur’s “latest videos” are “somewhat offensive”, that they are “losing their footing”, you may want to revisit the brand’s history >>

    if anything, the luxury lingerie brand with a punk-rock heritage takes pride in their brazen cheekiness, and certainly has gotten less, not more, “offensive” over the years. and that “f*ck-you” attitude is exactly why i love them so much more than any other lingerie brand out there.

    • When I say ‘somewhat offensive’ I mean fairly misogynist. I think that video (that you posted) is great– it’s amusing and cheeky. The latest ones show women who are NOT in control of their sexuality and are merely sex objects for men.

  6. That is exactly the type of marketing I dislike !
    I can’t identifie myself with the models in photos. In fact, I don’t want to be this wonderful beautiful sexy woman. I just want to be me ! I like black lace bras, but it is hard for me to buy one, because in my head I see all the “sexy commercial” attached to it ! So, most of the time, I just think “it is not for me”. The same for a floral pattern, even if I like it, the marketing tells me “if you buy it, you will become a romantic, girly and delicate woman half naked in a garden in summer”.
    I don’t have enough self confidence to not be influenced, but too much to want to be like the models.

    • I think there is definitely room for a brand to step in there and NOT be like VS or AP and yet have an identity. I’m not too fond of VS myself, but I think what they do is very powerful and identifiable.

      • I totally agree they have a powerful image ! There are no VS or AP in my country, but a lot of people know theses brands (and not only the ones who particulary loves lingerie) ! Their marketing is relayed by the press and internet, even if we can’t buy it (or maybe online for Agent provocator) !

        What do you think of lingerie marketing in general ? Which type works better with you ?
        I am really interesed by this question. When a brand image is “too strong” for me, I don’t want to buy it anymore, because of the “it is not for me”, like I said in my first comment. It is so strange !
        For now, the type of marketing that works the best with me, is the one of polish brands Ewa Michalak and Only Her. They model they lingerie on differents bodies, or at least on a woman that is not a top model, and in a relatively neutral way. Then the bra is photografied worn by custumers on balkonetka or bratabase, or on blogs. I can see the same thing on differents bodies. This type of marketing makes me want to buy a lot more ! The good thing with it, it is I have multiple anonymus models, so I can see how wonderful is each woman who model it, and each one is wonderful in a different way ! So I can be wonderful too, in my way ! The other good thing is theses brands are not in the fashion shootings of Vogue, Elle, etc, so the image of the brand stay “anonymous”. There are less feminine stereotypes attached to them.

  7. Thank you for this. It doesn’t surprise me, either, that Victoria’s Secret dominates the U.S. intimate apparel market. They’re the only one playing the game!

    Ironic, too – you make a good point that underthings aren’t overtly “seen” – but I still feel bras are such a topic of fascination in our culture (and privy to word of mouth) that you’d think marketers would make inroads, somehow?

  8. Great post and I totally agree with you! Personally I feel when lingerie labels put focused strategies together it will benefit both the labels, stockists and women.


  9. When you consider each of these brands you have to accept that VS spends a fortune on advertising (allegedly $12m on Superbowl 2011 alone!) alongside they American Dream style models. AP had the coat-tails of Vivien Westwood and a hit-squad of their own celeb models to gain column inches.

    So are we to believe that each of these brands is actually selling us something different in terms of their brand identities? Or is it simply the reach and column inches provided by the money and the stars?

    Perhaps Fleur of England or Kiss Me Deadly would be household names if they had the models and the deep pockets? I think that perhaps those winning the marketing battle may simply be doing so by hammering the message home rather than simply being aspirational.

    • Good point Craig! Fleur of England and Kiss Me Deadly are both examples of indie brands that I think are fantastic at marketing and do a great job of creating a message and an idea to go along with their product. Obviously, VS and AP have much deeper pockets, so the comparison isn’t quite fair!

  10. So glad I found this blog! I once thought the creme de la creme of lingerie was…GASP! Victoria’s Secret, because frankly, on my side of the West Coast, they are the most obvious. In truth, I hate VS. Too much padding, uncomfortable fit…I thought it was just me though, because those stores are alwasys packed to the brim. I’ve recently discovered better made lingerie, and while most are out of my price range, I am snapping them up during the recent change-of-season sale period. I recently discover Natori, and I LOVE it. I am anxiously awaiting my first Fleur de England bra and panty set that I ordered from Journelle. Do you have any other recommendations of comfortable AND fashionable bras?

  11. Some of the retailers that we purchase from are Journelle Lille Boutique Azaelas NYC Forty Winks in Boston ASOS Figleaves Largo Drive By Langely and Anthropologie All of the aforementioned web sites offer mid season discounts which brings the price point less or equal to VS but much better quality Go with the brands that work best for you Journelle has a few great 50 percent off coupons through Gilt during the year! They are one of the best sites from $20 to $200 price points

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