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Should Brands Even Be Speaking About Social Causes?

  • Words: Christopher Morency

This week's FRONTPAGE is an analysis of a leading question facing the industry: just how involved should corporations be in the dire social struggles defining our times?

Two weeks ago, Valentino launched one of this year’s most covetable luxury products. For a mere €590 (about $690), you could be the proud owner of a limited-edition black logoed hoodie, emblazoned with the words “VACCINATED,” of which 100 percent of the proceeds would go to UNICEF’s global COVAX program.

The idea came from Valentino’s celebrated Creative Director Pierpaolo Piccioli after seeing the overwhelming positive response a selfie he posted on Instagram had generated, in which he wore one of the "(V)accinated" pieces, following his second jab. And when Lady Gaga, Marc Jacobs, Instagram’s Eva Chen, and almost every other major industry figure “needs one,” it’s go time.

“I can talk about ruffles and bows, but sometimes you have to use your voice to say what you really believe, and I believe it’s our social responsibility to get vaccinated,” Piccioli told The Times’ Vanessa Friedman ahead of the launch of the capsule. “It’s not a symbol of freedom to not be vaccinated. It’s a symbol of lack of respect for others,” he went on.

The Italian fashion house is the latest to join a fast-growing list of apparel brands who are making their support of social causes a key part of their branding strategy. From Nike’s public support of Colin Kaepernick and Burberry’s long-term partnership with footballer Marcus Rashford on fighting child poverty to Louis Vuitton’s work with UNICEF, brands big and small are looking to find growth by unapologetically wearing their heart — and values — on their sleeve.

“More and more consumers care about environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues; it therefore makes good marketing to weave those values into the brands' narrative,” says Luca Solca, Senior Research Analyst, Luxury Goods at Bernstein. “Think Prada and re-nylon, think Moncler and the Covid-19 hospital donation, LVMH and disinfectant liquid, as well as Valentino. They’re all examples of the same trend. Brands are right to update their behavior and discourse, adjusting to the current zeitgeist.”

But how much can brands (whose entire reason for existing is centred around growing their bottom line by finding new ways to sell you new physical products) actually drive lasting change? When is it genuine? What does “good” even look like? These questions are increasingly becoming more nuanced and polarized, as watch dogs like Diet Prada and Twitter are always lurking to catch fashion’s latest misstep. With real money at stake, brands can no longer avoid becoming more value-driven.

According to a 2019 study on value-driven brands by Deloitte, “55 percent of survey respondents believe businesses today have a greater responsibility to act on issues related to their purpose. Those failing to do so risk being displaced by purpose-driven disruptors.” It’s also bad for business in the long-term, with purpose-oriented companies seeing higher productivity and growth rates. Especially given that consumers are ready to walk away from the brands that don’t hold themselves accountable to the values we hope they’ll share with us.

At a time when our trust in traditional governing bodies is quickly fading and pessimism about social and political climates has reached a historic low — according to Deloitte’s updated Global Millennial 2020 report, more than 40 percent of survey respondents expect worsening situations, the highest ever recorded — we’ve looked elsewhere to those that can guide us. Brands whose role has always been to convince us they’re direct extensions of our identity — and are instrumental for how we want to be seen by others — have taken it upon themselves to save the day.

As social media has democratized the feed, a brand like Gucci has the same digital real estate and engagement frequency as that of your best friend (both live alongside each other on your feed). And brands have infiltrated every aspect of our lives by masking themselves as just that: our friends, our guiding forces. Those who best understand what values drive us emotionally win. As Deloitte states in its report: “As consumers are increasingly putting their wallets where their values are, stopping or initiating relationships are [now] based on how companies treat the environment, protect personal data, and position themselves on social and political issues.”

We’ve now come to a point where we’ve humanized brands to the extent where, by and large, we expect them to think harder, know better, and feel deeper. We’ve decided that anything shy of that embodiment just isn’t acceptable and doesn't deserve our time, attention, or money — the three ultimate pillars at the center of today’s brand competition. It’s a challenge brands have all too eagerly accepted.

“Brands are made up of people, and at the end of the day, we’re all humans,” says Leila Fataar, founder of Platform13, an independent full-service creative marketing and communications company that has worked with companies including Vans, Dr. Martens, and adidas on building cultural value for brands by working hand-in-hand with cultural voices around the world. “These human-first decisions can make a difference in how brands act; they have the weight and power to change narratives, if they want to. They also have the responsibility to do so.”

Fataar continues: “At best, they’re doing it because they really want to be part of the much needed change that has been accelerated in the past 18 months. The best brands and companies listen to their consumers and employees. At worst, it’s a performative action to stay relevant and be part of the conversation.” She adds: “It's a risk if it's not done with the right intention or without the guidance and collaboration from experts or people who are impacted. It’s a complex issue, as opportunity and risk are two sides of the same coin. [But] change doesn’t happen overnight. Long-term action and commitment is needed for social justice issues.”

What’s clear is that brands that are still on the fence of getting involved with social causes now that their societal role has changed, and as their global influence has continued to grow, shouldn’t ask "if" but "how" they can best get involved in an actual impactful way. At least that’s what our HS Rolodex community members think.

“If I was asked this question a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have cared if brands spoke up regarding social issues,” says one member. “But today, I feel it’s crucial that they do. I’m a young Black woman from the US and I really felt seen when brands that I shop from posted their support of the BLM movement. A brand should support their customers like their customers support the brand. Creating that personal connection prompts me to want to support a brand [more].”

Across the board, however, the experts and HS Rolodex members we spoke to say they only want to see brands support social and environmental causes if it makes sense to the brand. Without a clear association, one can be walking on thin ice and risk coming across as green- or woke-washing.

“When fashion brands choose to become more involved with social causes, they can do this if their ambition goes beyond selling more products,” says one HS Rolodex respondent. “They need to choose carefully which social cause is meaningful to them. This can be through an authentic tradition, a cultural moment, or a long-term vision that connects the cause and the brand for the future. Short-term product drops and social activations can be perceived as cheap and provoke the wrong message.”

“I think Jacquemus does a great job in his sharing of LGBTQ+ rights, as well as Virgil Abloh and [his work] as an influential Black figurehead in fashion and culture,” says another respondent. “Brands should only get themselves involved where they’re able to genuinely add genuine thoughts, opinions, and social solutions, or have a reason for involvement, not when it’s just trendy or if it’s from a money-making angle.’”

Or, as Bernstein’s Luca Solca says, “[Brands] appear more credible when what they do is directly linked to the brand core equity. For example: Prada is recognized for nylon; using recycled nylon is credible. Charitable actions disconnected from the brand equity are commendable, but produce less of a positive impact.”

Credible impact is when Pyer Moss’ Kerby-Jean Raymond and Kering link up to launch Your Friends In New York, a platform designed to empower the next generation of innovators, which merges fashion, philanthropy, art, and music; when Burberry — one of the most widely-adopted brands in football culture — invests in footballer Marcus Rashford’s ongoing vision to support charities supporting marginalized young people in the UK and beyond; or when Jordan Brand and Michael Jordan pledge to donate $100 million over the next 10 years to fight racial inequality. Fast fashion giants pushing celebrity-endorsed messages about their new, more environmentally responsible capsules? Not so much.

“I would add Telfar as a brand that is delivering social impact through their unceasing vision of the ‘not for you, for everyone’ stance,” says Heta Fell, a Brand and Social Impact Consultant who has worked with brands including Gucci, Fendi, and adidas. “While most luxury fashion brands are slowly becoming slightly more inclusive, Telfar paves the way, and it’s clear it comes from the heart.”

Fell names Bethany Williams’ work with Manx Workshop for the Disabled, addiction rehabilitation centre San Patrignano, and The Magpie Project that supports mothers in insecure accommodations as key examples of how a brand can authentically put community impact at its core, as well as Ganni’s publishing of its Responsibility Report, and Loewe’s Studio Voltaire Award, which offers rent-free studio spaces to artists in London.

“Too many luxury brands aren’t getting the basics right in social impact and end up giving Diet Prada more fuel than we have right now. There’s too much performative impact work that ends up with brands burdening the very communities they are trying to help,” Fell adds. “I think it’s vital for brands to use their platform and resources to make a positive impact, but it needs to be done properly.”

She recommends brands take a community-first approach and directly work with communities to find out what they really need, and how they can contribute to lasting change. That includes brands needing to recognize community leaders as the experts in this work and valuing them as a result.

“The brand team that works on this needs to be intersectional and understand how to operate in worlds outside of luxury fashion. [Of course] a luxury brand’s social purpose also needs to be the obvious choice for the brand’s vision. This adds positively to the mental imprint of the brand in people’s minds, and keeps your brand top of mind when it counts.”

With that in mind, over to you.

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