While this year's push towards "corporate activism" has been fairly cringeworthy, it is, nevertheless, an important opportunity to instill tenets that we as consumers expect from a brand. With this in mind, we asked industry veteran Joseph Keefer to break down just what a brand would need to do in order to be truly purpose-driven.
If you’ve looked around and seen what's going on in the past few months, you’ve realized shit needs to change. We need to assess ourselves, our companies, our values, and how we operate.
Who am I? I’m Joseph Keefer, born in DC, raised in the shadow of the city’s hardcore music scene; I’m purpose-driven with a strong DIY background. I’ve spent 15 years in the fashion industry, mostly in the menswear world, designing, selling, buying, etc. I’ve worked with the likes of Ssense, Saint Laurent, Robert Geller, Barneys NY, Deveaux NY, Earnest Sewn, GHSTS, and others. Currently, I have a consulting firm in New York, KFR Studio, which provides end-to-end fashion solutions for brands and designers.
As someone who works with a variety of brands, I see this as an opportune time for companies to address what their guiding principles and purposes should be. Many brands establish an internal set of principles and purposes that guide them — it’s a useful map for many companies to follow. There is no better time to look at your own company’s set and address how they can change, and how they can direct your company forward.
In the ever expanding world of social media empowerment, we’re all realizing that everyone’s voice has a platform; it is becoming increasingly important what that means for your brand. With the increase in visibility and speed of information, it’s important to understand the current environment and issues, such as Black Lives Matter, systematic racism, and police brutality. How do these issues impact those around you and your brand? Take the time to read, listen, and learn, and distill the information in a way your company can connect with the cause and communicate effectively — remember, it’s important that you actually care.
The real question is: How do you implement these causes in an impactful and respectful way through your company's platform? This is by no means a solves-all plan, but merely a guideline with some steps to address that question.
Pick a cause
Why did you pick this cause, and how do you plan to help this cause? This part is the easiest on paper. Educate yourself and your team on the current social/political environment and decide together what cause is aligned with your perspectives. It’s important to understand that when your brand decides to align with a cause, that cause is not a fad for your business. The position your company stakes out with a cause will need to become an intrinsic part of your company’s story, even if your involvement is a more passive one, e.g. a portion of proceeds. Authenticity and caring about your chosen cause is not only massively important at a human level, but will lead to a more successful partnership for all involved. Customers can sniff out bullshit, and the last thing you want to do is come off as riding a wave of change just to stay relevant — don’t be Pepsi.
Determine the stance
This is an important one — it’s about the forward-facing messaging, how the brand plans to incorporate this new, purpose-driven initiative into your current structure. How your brand aligns and supports your chosen cause will play a big part in how successful the partnership can be. For example, if you decide to go big, align with a sustainability driven messaging and ethos; it becomes a major touch point of the brand identity, and you will need to ensure you’re holding your entire supply chain compliant. If your brand is not actively holding all parties responsible, it’s damaging for your messaging, brand, and, more importantly, the cause. Simply — don’t be a poser; if you’re going to do the damn thing, do it. The damage to the viability of the cause you chose to support can have huge ripple effects in your community: “If brand X couldn’t even do it, why should I care?”
Structuring your support
Look, we all admit — it’s great to give any amount. However, remember that the perception of what you give matters, too. If you’re selling at a luxury price point, you should ensure that your contribution is as impactful as your product’s price is on your customer’s wallet. Connect with your cause, and find secondary ways for your company and employees to engage further in support. Provide your employees with resources for further learning and engaging. Embrace open dialogue between your team to allow ideas and perspectives to be shared. Remember, it’s not just about raising money, it’s about creating meaningful change. For example, if you’re raising awareness and money for bail funds, find a way to align with legal resources, education, and job opportunities for those going through the system. If you decide that product or collaborations will be beneficial in raising awareness and money, be tactful. Ensure the product aligns respectfully and impactfully with your cause. Additionally, if you create a product for a cause and it comes out of nowhere, it can feel forced and fake — don’t give room for cynicism with your customers.
While it may come across as cynical, you are running a business, and that business needs to stay around. With that in mind, creating a donation program within your company can be helpful with your taxes; it works for the billionaire class, so why not follow suit? Many countries have incentivized corporations donations by making favorable tax breaks to those who do. Speak with your accountant about the loopholes, how your altruism can help you hustle the system, and how they will affect your finances. It’s important to understand how your donations affect your company’s margins and bottom line. Assess and understand your costing structure, ensure that you’re allowing your company and your contributions to the cause both to thrive. Remember, if your company goes out of business, your donations and impact both disappear.
Activate, Engage, and Educate
Inform your community about your cause and how it aligns with your brand's purposes and principles. Make a difference. At the end of the day, adding purpose to your company is about much more than just the messaging — it's the action points your brand can bring to the table. Messaging and awareness are great when they are backed up with action. Making a difference through your brand’s contributions can take many forms: some are very outspoken, like Ben & Jerry’s (going big forever, employing ex-cons, and loudly condemning white supremacy) or Brain Dead (looked to their community and raised over half a mill in a week), some are less so, but still impactful — find the route that feels most natural for your company.
All in all, I know it’s not popular to say, but the days of appealing to the masses are behind us. Starting a brand in fashion is about communicating a point of view, so do that — if you don’t, you’re in the wrong business. The stronger your brand identity is, the more deeply aligned like-minded people will be. Find your cause and your voice — the right audience will respond.