Selling what you believe in
Every generation has its cause. As consumers are increasingly more politically engaged and socially aware, brands are standing up for issues that matter.
By Janice Stainton
In the midst of political turmoil, debates around gender identity, feminism, race and sexuality have become mainstream conversation. Now some brands are boldly taking sides on socio-political issues that define the times we live in. This is not simply about casting a transgender model in an ad campaign or producing a single sustainable collection. This is about brands standing up for what they believe in and defining a position in relation to a host of current issues.
The EU referendum divided families, couples and colleagues. Yet it motivated Jigsaw to create a campaign with a strong message about unity. As a brand that’s been ‘Beautifully British since 1970’, they challenged the concept of their own identity with the AW17 campaign. The Heart Immigration manifesto put a strong statement out to the world. “British style is not 100% British. Without immigration, we’d be selling potato sacks,” states Jigsaw’s website. It goes on to explore the brand’s own DNA, made by 45 nationalities, using materials from 16 countries.
This is not the first time Jigsaw have taken a firm stance on contentious issues. Over the past few years the brand has shunned Black Friday and confronted fast-fashion for being wasteful. Each campaign is a spirited embodiment of their ‘Style & Truth’ philosophy. Alex Kelly, Group of Head Marketing at Jigsaw tells us "It's not enough now for brands to just promote their products to consumers. They have to be willing to stand for something and most importantly create an emotional connection.”
For brands brave enough to stand for something, they also face a backlash from those that do not share their views. Kelly says “Sometimes it might be that customers disagree with you but even that is better than feeling nothing at all. Apathy, the bit in the middle, is just a slow death for brands as the middle ground is overcrowded and not memorable".
Last year JWT looked at the rise of The Political Consumer. They found, “those [brands] that sit on the sidelines risk missing out on important conversations, or even alienating consumers who seek a better alignment with their values.” It has become increasingly essential for brands to reassess their social responsibility. Those that convey a compelling argument can evoke emotion that appeals as much as logic and reason.
The brand value effect
Brand values are simply that, what a company ‘values’. Those that align their brand with customers’ belief system can forge strong bonds that must not be broken.
When ‘The Abnormal Beauty Company’ DECEIM, proudly announced that they had become part of the Estee Lauder family their fans reacted. Many felt betrayed that a brand they had bought into because of its ethics, had accepted investment from a parent company that did not share their values. With over a thousand comments on Instagram, followers raised ethical issues, “How could you event have the same values as a corp who tests on animals?” wrote @pujapall. Likewise, users called on the brand’s conscience “You guys must know that deep down that this doesn’t align with the values you’ve always been so proud of” @hamishlucy.
It resulted in an open letter from Brandon Truaxe, Founder and CEO that stated, “We will not change our mindset, our beliefs or anything that you have come to love about us. Ultimately, words may not mean much, but our commitment in the coming years will empower you to reflect and recognize that this partnership enabled us to be more of who we are.” The humble response demonstrates that a brand is the promise you make and keeping that promise matters more than ever.
In September 2017, Katharine Hamnett relaunched the brand will equal vigour. The designer made political history when she wore a homemade t-shirt with the headline ‘58% Don't Want Pershing’ to meet Margaret Thatcher, opposing nuclear missiles being stationed in the UK. Despite thinking that no one would ever buy political slogan t-shirts (they were a good photo opportunity), fashion gave her a voice. Updated versions campaign about current worthwhile causes. ‘Choose Love’ helps to raise awareness and funds for people caught up in the refugee crisis. ‘Cancel Brexit’ needs no explanation.
When Hamnett came up with the concept she wanted to create something that would have positive effect if copied. Today we see apparel inspired by Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ t-shirt everywhere from Topshop to Primark. This is one example of people who wouldn’t consider themselves activists engaging in collective action. From changing their profile image on social media to wearing a safety pin in solidarity, these small changes can make a big impact.
Founders of Project JUST, Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail, believe that real change can happen through the accumulation of the thoughtful choices you make every day. The website helps people shop smarter by providing information on brands and helping them to discover new ones. Jacinta FitzGerald, Chief Operating Officer, says, “Brands have the power of influence over their community and can use their voice and their actions to effect positive change on the world.”
Transparency is vital
Today a brand’s actions must match its words. Those that fail to do so potentially face an image crisis and permanent damage. Fashion Revolution is a global movement calling for greater transparency in the fashion industry. Founder and Creative Director, Orsola de Castro tells us “Transparency is the first step.” When it comes to engaging customers with current issues Orsola believes “It has to fit with the signature of the brand but most of all it has to fit with modus operandi of the business.”
The H&M Group came joint third in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, for publishing information about their suppliers, supply chain management and their business practices. The retailer is improving its operations with commitment to a fair living wage, investing in textile recycling technology and partnering with NGOs to tackle global issues. However, they still have a long way to go.
On the high street, the brand engages model-slash-activists to challenge norms around including femininity, gender, sexuality, and body image. While Gen Z promote diversity via social media, the retailer uses its own challenges to promote both diversity and inclusivity. Their latest incarnation is a unisex denim collection. Whilst not the first collection of its kind, it chimes with the current mood of teens and 20-somethings that frequent their stores.
A catalyst for change
Today, brands are interwoven with identity and culture. Whether it’s a brash logo or a subtler choice of niche brand, people buy products that say something about who they are. Aligning ourselves with a brand also aligns us with their values. Brands, like individuals, are being judged by what they do and what they don’t do.
Director of Flamingo insight and strategy agency, Tim Parker says, “Brands have a huge amount of power to shape culture in indirect ways, so they should be good corporate citizens and aware of the power they wield.” He highlights that the relevance to both its audience and the brand itself is key. “Some can play to these political tendencies, others would do best to completely ignore this and stick to what they do best” explains Parker.
For those brands that do express a viewpoint on the bigger picture, they stand to drive deeper consumer engagement. Ultimately brands will be defined by their actions. Those that sell empty promises face being exposed by those they seek to engage.