Social Justice and Brand Building

Over the past few years, brands have more often ventured into the realm of social justice and politics, whether it’s Starbucks giving their entire retail network a day off to learn about racial equity, Dick’s Sporting Goods taking automatic guns and ammunition off their shelves, or beauty brands making a pledge to stop Photoshopping models, every day there’s another story about a company taking some sort of stand.

Why is this happening, and does it build or harm brand equity? Today I’m chatting with Digital Marketing and Communication Strategist, Sebastian Maynard, about some of the biggest issues driving consumer preference.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail. Over the past few years, brands have more often ventured into the realm of social justice and politics, whether it’s Starbucks giving their entire retail network a day off to learn about racial equity, Dick’s Sporting Goods taking automatic guns and ammunition off their shelves, or beauty brands making a pledge to stop Photoshopping models, every day there’s another story about a company taking some sort of stand.

Why is this happening, and does it build or harm brand equity? Today I’m chatting with Digital Marketing and Communication Strategist, Sebastian Maynard, about some of the biggest issues driving consumer preference. Welcome Sebastian, how are you?

Sebastian: Good thanks. How are you?

Melinda: Good. Thanks for joining us. So, let’s just get into it. It’s impossible to talk about this subject without discussing climate change and sustainability. And a lot of brands are trying to make their products greener in response to climate change, and especially for younger generations who are most concerned about this issue. What do you see as some of the big opportunities and challenges in taking on sustainability as a cause?

Sebastian: It’s a huge question and every week it seems like there’s a new study or a new report showing just how important sustainability and trying to improve upon that is, whether it’s packaging, whether it’s fashion, every industry really has an impact. I was just looking online earlier today; McDonald’s has partnered with Loop in the U.K. for a reusable cup program. The state of Maine in the States has become the first state to pass legislation that places the cost of collecting and recycling packaging on producers. And so you can just kind of Google what’s happening and every week, a new brand or a new government is trying to effect change in different ways. And it’s really exciting.

But at the end of the day, I think education is still a huge component of whether it’s recycling or just getting consumers aware of what is possible, what’s out there, and encouraging them to take part as well. It’s one thing to have these products that are biodegradable, it’s one thing to create clothing out of recycled materials, but there’s still that barrier, whether it’s the cost or just the knowledge. And I think that’s really the point we’re at right now. There’s a lot of interesting ideas and technology out there but implementing and ensuring that it’s kind of accessible for the wider population is to me the big challenge at the moment. I don’t know what you think about that?

Melinda: Yeah. I would have to agree with you. You know, we work with CPG clients, obviously a lot, and there are tons being done on the innovation side around materials to make materials more sustainable, to either reduce the amount of material being used or to make it entirely biodegradable or to make it, you know, easier to recycle, but on the consumers’ end, they still have to complete that loop. So sometimes it’s a lack of infrastructure. So you may have spotty infrastructure across your entire network, you know, if we’re just talking about North America here, not every region has the same capacity for recycling and if you have a biodegradable material, some people may be unsure of what to do about it and it might end up in a recycling bin which could actually damage the recycling plant. So there’s a lot of, I think, options and opportunities, but I think industries need to get together and decide on a course that makes the most sense and be consistent because I think that will help governments decide what types of infrastructure to build, or maybe industries can participate in building some of this infrastructure and certainly if they become responsible for recycling, that might happen on a wider scale.

And then, yeah, like you said, users, the consumers need to have the information to truly understand what is this that I’m buying? How sustainable is it really? And I think that’s the other piece is that if you are signalling that I’m green but you’re not really explaining how you’re being green, how green is this really and what the consumer needs to do to complete it and make sure that really does meet those goals that you’re outlining and saying, “This is recyclable,” but what can the consumer do to make sure that that happens? If you’re not doing those things, you could face some backlash too, I think.

Sebastian: Exactly. And it’s one thing to kind of put out a press release and say that we’re going to target having be completely sustainable by 2030 or we’re going to be using recycled ocean plastics for our shoes and our clothing, but to actually kind of have it become part of your DNA in some ways, I think that’s the next step. And you look at brands like Patagonia, where instead of saying, “Hey, buy a new product,” they say, “Wait a minute. Why don’t we fix what you already have or donate it?” And so, it’s less about a campaign and more about becoming ingrained with your brand and in turn, it becomes ingrained with your consumers. They understand and then they buy into it in that way as well.

And just kind of continuing on that, and I know this is something you’re interested in, there’s a good article in NPR recently, thrifting has become a $28 billion industry in the past decade. It’s not only good for consumers in terms of being able to kind of showcase their style, be a little bit more unique, but obviously, it’s great for the planet as well. And it just seems like there’s an appetite for new things and for helping both yourself and the planet and the brands that are able to combine those things and empower their consumers, it seems like those are the ones that are going to win moving forward.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. And like thrifting, it’s so interesting to me how enormous an industry it’s become. And recently I heard Greta Thunberg made a statement saying that essentially there’s no way that fast fashion can ever actually be sustainable. And I’m not sure that I entirely agree with her. I think that micro-manufacturing and smart, predictive supply chain tools could significantly reduce waste in fast fashion. I think the problem with fast fashion is that they’re always producing more than is actually sold. And so obviously that is not sustainable, but I do think that we’re starting to see that technology could bridge the gap between, you know, instead of producing massive amounts of stuff before it gets into the stores, that you’re able to produce it much more in real-time. But I do think that looking at business model innovation is going to be critical for certain industries.

I’m thinking right now about fashion to meet the needs of emerging generations who are less concerned about having something that’s brand new and disposable and more interested in having something that’s high quality that they’re going to have for a long time and that fits their unique desire to express themselves. So that’s why you’re sort of seeing the luxury market still doing relatively well, but especially on the thrifting side, there are lots of websites where you can go and buy beautiful designer clothing for a fraction of the cost and that’s a huge part of the thrifting market. It’s not just going and finding a pair of old Levi’s. It’s on the high end as well.

Sebastian: Right. And, yeah, I think it comes down to communication in some ways and both for businesses and consumers just making it relevant to them in some way. I read a stat from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it says that less than 1% of material used for clothing is recycled, which equals about $100 billion worth of materials lost each year. And so just the financial ramifications. And then once again for consumers, you know, back to the point about Patagonia, why spend money on a new sweater or something like that when there’s an alternative that might save you some money and hey, you can create something that’s a little bit more unique to your own style. So, in some ways, it’s about really making it worth it for everyone and not just saying, “Yeah, this is great for the planet. This is going to help, you know, your grandchildren or something like that.” But there is a lot more today, immediate payoff that you can get as well from it.

Melinda: Absolutely. Okay. So, let’s move on to another topic. Let’s talk about politics. It used to be that brands stayed as far away as possible from politics, but that’s definitely changing a lot. What do we think about brands taking a stand on political issues?

Sebastian: I think over the past few years it’s become essential for brands to stand for something. To be quiet seems to be complicit in a lot of ways. And there are so many examples of these armchair activists or brands that are coming out and posting something, Black Lives Matter or saying something and then moving on but not really putting any action into place. And that’s kind of the worst thing you could do in some ways. So the companies that are really taking a stand, understanding the things that matter to their consumers, and making those things matter to them as well, it may seem controversial, but at the end of the day, I think it’s really the only way to do smart business right now.

Melinda: It’s really tricky because, you know, I mentioned in the intro, Dick’s Sporting Goods, that for them taking a stand didn’t have the payoff that it did for say Nike because a lot of their core consumers, you know, maybe didn’t agree with… maybe they have more gun owners in their core consumer group than Nike does. I think you really do have to know your core consumer and understand what’s important to them and if you do want to take a stand on something, you have to be willing to face those potential consequences and weigh that all out. I mean, I think when we talk about the Nike and Colin Kaepernick ad, I think they did weigh that out in advance and I think they had a strong sense that it would balance out in their favor financially, which it did. So, I don’t have as maybe much love or respect for that as I do for Dick’s Sporting Goods being willing to say, “You know what, we’re going to take a stand on this even though we know that there’s going to be maybe some backlash against us.”

Sebastian: That’s a good point. You know, Nike, I feel like they’ve kind of always, going back to their first Just Do It campaign, which happened in the ‘80s that was kind of centered around age-ism. The first commercial had an 80-year-old marathon runner and it showed that regardless of age or gender, anything like that, you can do it if you just try, and you have put in the effort.

So, they’ve kind of had this mentality ingrained in them from the start, but it’s a good point with Dick’s. They almost went against their customer base in some ways in trying to educate and maybe showcase a different side of their brand. And it is interesting to see, to go out on that ledge. And I know Ben and Jerry’s, we’ve talked about recently, we wrote a blog and that’s another example of a brand that has stood for so many things. And at the end of the day, it hasn’t really been as big of a deal in some ways because it’s almost expected from them.

Melinda: Yeah. I do think that with Ben and Jerry’s being a brand that’s been outspoken and political for a very long time, longer than most, it is expected and there’s been a lot of pressure on them to continue to be outspoken. And, you know, with them pulling their products from occupied territories in Israel, I think that Ben and Jerry’s core consumers are…that’s the kind of stance they expect, but the parent company, Unilever, is going to have to deal with the legal implications, which, you know, is going to be a bit of a headache for them even though they have made statements saying that they support Ben and Jerry’s and because their relationship with Ben and Jerry’s does allow Ben and Jerry’s to have a lot of control over their own brand in this kind of issue, it is going to create a headache for Unilever, for sure.

Sebastian: But you know, it’s funny. So I got an email, I guess I’m subscribed to, I think it’s Adweek, this morning and the blast was about Ben and Jerry’s and I figured it was about this very subject, but now they’ve already moved on. They’ve just launched a podcast series focused on the intersection of jam band culture and black liberation. It’s called “Blackberry Jams,” and it’s a Phish-themed podcast. So it’s kind of something you…their brand, it’s something you expect. They’re just moving on to the next issue and the next thing that they want to tackle. It’s hard to keep up with them.

Melinda: Absolutely. So the last big bucket I thought that we could talk about is inclusion in beauty and fashion. There’s been a lot of challenger brands in these categories that have really built their entire brand around inclusion. And so we’re seeing incumbents now trying to play catch up. What are your thoughts on this?

Sebastian: Yeah. This is a tricky one and I mean, it’s obviously so much easier to start with a blank slate and make inclusion part of your DNA. I think everyone would agree, the hope is that we get to a point where it’s not even a topic, it’s not even something that you notice, whether it’s different body sizes, or skin tones, or ages, or whatever being represented, it would just be a given, but the fact that we’re not at that point yet shows that work still needs to be done. I think authenticity gets thrown around a lot, but that’s really what it comes down to. It has to be more than a marketing campaign or a single initiative. It really has to be something that people believe is ingrained in your company. And so that goes beyond just one component.

It goes into your hiring practices, it goes into the way that people feel within your company, your employees. And so there’s so many different levels to it. Victoria’s Secret, they’re trying to backtrack after years of, you know, sexist campaigns or their runways and everything like that. And at the end of the day, it’s nice to have some big names associated with you and talk about making change, but until you show that you’re doing it, I think consumers are going to be skeptical. And there’s so many options now that if you’re not delivering on those promises, then just go to the next website or next door and people are going to find what they’re looking for and support the brands that are once again supporting the things they care about.

Melinda: Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring up Victoria’s Secret because I was honestly quite surprised to see this complete about-face after they had been criticized for many years for not being inclusive of different body types, of age, of gender identity, all these types of things. They had really taken quite a hard line saying, you know, “We’re about a fantasy and this is what it is.” And now because they’ve taken such a strong stand on that side to flip, it seems like to me…my perception is that this is not something they’ve done because that’s what they believe in but because people are not buying their products anymore. And so it doesn’t feel authentic. It feels very much reactive rather than a decision and a direction. So I am skeptical about Victoria’s Secret making this work. I think there are a lot of other brands that have come in and filled in the space that Victoria’s Secret used to play in and they have come in with a message of inclusion and I think it’s going to be very hard for them to get back to where they were.

Sebastian: Yeah. So with Victoria’s Secret, I think it is going to take time and it’s not just an overnight fix that people are going to all of a sudden believe and embrace you again. You’ve really got to put in the effort and put your money where your mouth is in a lot of ways. And it’ll be interesting to see and track how it goes for sure.

Melinda: And I think that even brands that are inclusive still have more room to go. I think you mentioned age earlier in the podcast and I think that is a huge one where, you know, I’m in my mid-40s and I’m definitely starting to gravitate towards brands that are really off the beaten track because they are speaking to me, and I’m looking at a lot of these brands that for many years I was a loyal consumer to these companies, and I’m kind of leaning away from them now because they are not showing me someone who looks like me. And I think it’s a real loss for those brands. And an area that we still culturally are very ageist and I like to think it’s the last “ism” that’s still really socially acceptable.

And I do think around gender identity, body shapes, so not just showing plus-size women…or plus-size bodies but showing a range of different shapes because it’s not just about the size, it’s also about the idealized shape, which for women is the hourglass and for men is the broad shoulders. So like showing a much greater range of body shapes, including cultural dress and including differently-abled bodies, I think these are all, you know, things that some brands are starting to…I’m thinking of Universal Standard and Aerie are the two ­– I really think Universal Standard sets the bar for what inclusion could be in fashion. And I think a lot of brands that are doing a good job can do better by taking those things into consideration as well.

Sebastian: Yeah. It’s a good point. And oftentimes it does feel like it is these new upstart brands that are the ones pushing the envelope, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re looking at your competitors within your own industry or outside of it, there’s so much inspiration and you can just see the use case examples of a brand like Fenty and the success that they’ve had. And yes, they have Rihanna, which helps, but the fact that they’ve kind of embraced their community and created a community that is inclusive, it just set themselves up for success regardless of…they’re known as much about that inclusivity as they are their product and that just allows them to withstand 5, 10, 50 years down the road. Whatever trends may be going on in terms of fashion, they’re so much bigger than that.

Melinda: Yeah. Absolutely. So I found an interesting study by Morning Consult that found that over 6 in 10 Americans prefer brands that act responsibly and ethically. For younger consumers, the number’s higher, but the number who then say they spent money due to a brand stance on a social cause is only around 23%. So, what do we make of this discrepancy?

Sebastian: Yeah. It’s a tough one. I think it’s kind of back to that armchair activist idea. It’s easy to say that you support these brands and it’s easy to, you know, reshare a post that supports a social cause but oftentimes whether it’s price or accessibility, these things are still barriers – education as well. And so I think that one of the first podcasts we did was with Paul Rowan, the founder of Umbra and in the conversation you guys had was about brands these days. If you’re not trying to be a hero, then you’re not going to win. You’re setting yourself up for failure. And yeah, that’s a bit of a grandiose and idealistic idea, but really the past couple of years have shown how much can change and how much uncertainty there can be. But if you set yourself up as a brand that is bigger than just a transactional relationship with your consumers, it’s going to allow you to withstand some turbulent times. And in terms of consumers, I think that hopefully, that education step is the missing link and understanding that it’s in your best interest to not only financially but also for the greater good to support these brands as well.

Melinda: Yeah. I agree. And I think messaging needs to match your core DNA, and that’s where I think some brands are going awry where there is this social cause messaging, but maybe not the meaningful action to back it up. And I think especially with younger consumers, they’re looking for the meaningful action while there are a lot of other consumers who may find a strong sense on one side or the other, maybe a bit divisive or maybe it’s not enough to drive them to make that purchase. It’s only one of many reasons people are making a purchase decision. So really understanding the core values that your consumers have is obviously the place to start and then making sure that it’s not just a message. It has to be much more than that.

Sebastian: Yeah. I mean, it’s overwhelming with all the different movements and the different issues that we’re facing right now. And I think sometimes people do kind of get their eyes glazed over when another brand is doing this, or, you know, another post about that. And so really making sure that you put it in every touchpoint and ensuring that it’s not just a one-off or anything like that, it allows your brand to kind of become almost associated and known for those movements or standing up for something, but having just kind of a buckshot idea and trying to see what catches, it’s not really going to resonate. Making it more a part of everything you do, I guess, at the end of the day is just the way to find those consumers that will embrace you and will support you for those causes, and those are the ones that are going to keep coming back for more and are going to be the loyal ones. And those are really, I think, who brands are trying to target and really trying to communicate with at the end of the day.

Melinda: So during the pandemic, mental health has been a big concern and we’ve all been really preoccupied with the pandemic and, you know, now we have a new U.S. President who’s not occupying headlines quite as much, and I’ve been noticing a lot of brands are opting for a more lighthearted, feel-good kind of message rather than, you know, we saw at the very beginning of the pandemic, it was this really sort of, you know, “we’re all in this together” and it was very serious in tone. Do we think that this sort of lighthearted, funny messaging is just a fleeting moment in time? Are we going to see a resurgence of this more impassioned and…I don’t want to say serious because not all of them have been serious, but a stronger tone. Do we think that that kind of brand activist perspective is going to emerge again in the future?

Sebastian: That’s a good question. And I think, yeah, it has been a heavy couple of years for everyone and brands…you know, at our company, we really loved the Extra Gum commercial where everyone was out and just free and happy and celebrating post-COVID. And, you know, we’ll see what happens this fall in terms of cases going up, but I think there is that kind of desire for light and happiness because there hasn’t been a lot of that, especially in marketing and communications campaigns and everything like that. There is a desire among consumers and people just to be happy in these and to feel the weight lifted post-COVID, but we can’t ignore the real issues and pretend that things are all back to normal because they aren’t. And I think brands are going to have to kind of walk that thin line between being socially conscious and having a stance and an opinion, but doing it in the right way.

And those are the brands that really resonate. I mean, Nike, we talked about Kaepernick. That was, what, two, three years ago? And they’ve had multiple campaigns since then about COVID, about Black Lives Matter, about athletes being more than just athletes. And so they’ve really kind of continued that in an almost inspirational way. And I think that goes back to what Paul Rowan was saying about being a hero. The brands that inspire their consumers are the ones that are…they can cover some heavy topics but do it in a way that empowers people as well.

Melinda: Yeah. I think that is a great point. It doesn’t have to be dark. It can still be light and positive but still be addressing something that is a serious concern. My last thought is that for some brands that are big multinational brands that have a fairly wide consumer base, the idea of taking on a cause that’s less polarizing, something that a lot of people could get behind is one that maybe is a good strategy for those types of companies. So, if there’s one social cause that we think is relevant right now that a brand in that kind of position could get behind, what do we think that cause might be?

Sebastian: Oh, that’s a tough one. I think the most immediate thing, and because we’re still living in a COVID world, is the support for employees. And especially in the retail industry, we’re seeing that employees and potential employees are not coming back in the way that brands may have hoped. And there is this kind of shifting of values and understanding that maybe they were not as happy or treated as well as they should have been. And it’s not enough just to raise wage by 50 cents or something like that, but really empowering your employees who in turn are your frontline voice to your consumers as well. And I think that’s an easy and an obvious thing that doesn’t get enough attention right now, but you look at restaurants and the stats, both here in Canada, and the States, and in the U.K., they’re having tough times getting employees back. So once again, it’s a social cause, but it’s also affecting your bottom dollar or your bottom line. And so, for me, that’s just one that it may not change the world at the end of the day, but it’s going to really change a lot of people’s lives and empower, and hopefully create some goodwill with your brand as well.

Melinda: Yeah. I agree. I think in restaurants and in…even in Amazon warehouses, and big-box stores, in grocery stores, workers haven’t had a lot of leverage in the past and I think the tables have turned a little bit, and it’s unfortunate that it had to get to this point where there are a lot of small businesses that are struggling to recover because they can’t…you know, I saw on the news just the other day, restaurant owners talking about how they can’t stay open seven days a week because they don’t have the staff to support that. So their ability to recover is hindered. Even though there is the demand, they just don’t have the staff. You know, you can pay people more, you can alter hours to make sure that they’re not being overworked, but at the end of the day, you still do need more than just one team to make sure that you can stay open seven days a week. It’s a really interesting time and I think reimagining the way that we relate to work, as in just the way that we perceive the value of work and that work-life balance is something that I think there’s been a real paradigm shift and companies need to catch up with the way employees are thinking and feeling and not just sort of write it off as a blip because I think you may get yourself into trouble if that’s what your perspective is. I don’t think it’s a blip.

Sebastian: Exactly. And it’s not as simple as just increasing wages by a little bit or anything like that. It’s a really, I think, a holistic shift for a lot of companies needs to happen where they really reassess how their culture within their company is run. And a lot of our conversation has been around what’s important to your customers, but also what’s important to your employees is equally as essential and if they’re not happy and if they’re not putting their best foot forward, then there’s no way that you can really succeed, I don’t think.

Melinda: Well, thanks for chatting with us about this. There’s a lot to cover in one podcast, but I think we’ve done enough! We’ve done our work for today!

Sebastian: Yeah, yeah, exactly. There’s no easy solution and it’s a daunting challenge for sure, but I think it’s also hopeful and there’s, you know, there’s a lot of inspiration out there and brands that can take charge and really inspire employees, inspire customers and create positive change, I think, that that’s something to strive for and it’ll resonate with everyone. So, for those that can do it right, the sky’s the limit.

Melinda: Okay. We’ve covered a lot of topics. So, I’m just going to try and distill the conversation. I think the overall takeaway is that brands need to take a stand because neutrality is no longer an option, but whatever cause you embrace, it needs to be connected to your brand DNA and more than just a one-time effort. We think right now you can’t go wrong by providing real support and superior working conditions for employees. But, again, it can’t be a one-time campaign. It needs to be connected to your core values and something you live and breathe every day.

Thanks for listening to Think Retail.