Can Brands With A Purpose Be Heroes?

Consumers are more empowered and educated than they’ve ever been throughout the history of modern capitalism. They want to know where their shoes are made, how their coffee was grown, and what conflicts their diamonds might have created, and they can find out in a matter of seconds.

Environmental sustainability is a key issue that threatens to disrupt the entire planet and younger generations increasingly see this as a top concern. Designer and co-founder of the houseware brand UmbraPaul Rowan, sees this as an opportunity for companies to step out of their role as sellers of stuff and to become the heroes consumers really want them to be.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda from SLD and this is “Think Retail.” Today we are talking about why brands need to embrace the consumer activist.

Consumers are more empowered and educated than they’ve ever been throughout the history of modern capitalism. They want to know where their shoes are made, how their coffee was grown, and what conflicts their diamonds might have created, and they can find out in a matter of seconds.

Environmental sustainability is a key issue that threatens to disrupt the entire planet and younger generations increasingly see this as a top concern. Designer and co-founder of the houseware brand UmbraPaul Rowan, sees this as an opportunity for companies to step out of their role as sellers of stuff and to become the heroes consumers really want them to be. Good morning, Paul, thank you for joining us today.

Paul: Good morning.

Melinda: Can you start us off just telling us a little bit about your career and how you came to be interested in sustainability and design?

Paul: Well, I’ve had a long career as you know, like 40 years almost in the houseware’s business. We started off just with product out of necessity, I’d moved into an apartment and the windows were bare, and I couldn’t find a window treatment that I liked. So, I invented one for myself and everyone said, “Okay, start a business with that.” So, I did with my business partner ​Les Mandelbaum, that was 1980. And then we didn’t really know our purpose, it was like okay, first necessity, let’s do functional things. But then it started to come together as an idea about democratization of design. So, that was our purpose, looking at everything and saying, how do we make it more accessible? How do we make it modern? How do we make it functional? And then we just built a business out of that. It was an amazing run.

But then, you know, looking back now when I look at our purpose and how it’s evolved, I see that today the environment is a lot more important to everybody in the world. I think businesses have a great opportunity of looking at products in a different way now, more friendly to the earth and also socially innovative and not creating any harm for workers. So, I think a brand based on those purposes could do much better today than when we started.

Melinda: Absolutely. So, we’re using the term consumer activist. Tell me what you think that means.

Paul: Well, I think we have an empowerment today that we never had before, as you said. When we started, I think businesses were much more hierarchical about their approach to business. Even in the way they’ve structured their management. Today consumers are really driving what companies are doing and I think brands that are successful today are much more consumer-facing.

Melinda: Right. So, anybody who’s read anything about Millennials and Generation Z, we all know that the environment is even more important for them than it is for those of us who aren’t in those generations. Can you talk a bit about how this is influencing the types of products and services specifically that brands are offering?

Paul: I think when I started in the business, it was really difficult even to source recycled materials, but we always strived to. It was also like a financial restraint because people wouldn’t pay for it. I think now that people are aware and it’s a much more important purpose for them to differentiate their product buying decisions by companies that are more environmentally friendly versus not, I think the consumer will definitely choose an environmentally friendly one. And like, who are you going to work for as a potential employee? You’re going to choose a company that’s more aligned with your ethics. Just the way you’re treated as an employee and then how that company treats the earth, for example.

Melinda: And are there some brands that you think are doing a great job of this?

Paul: I think the best brands in the world today are doing this. I mean, digitally focused brands are doing or have a lot less carbon footprint on the earth. Even if you look at companies like Uber, reducing the number of cars in cities by car sharing is a great idea. So, all the best brands today and the most successful ones do have that kind of purpose embedded in their brand.

Melinda: We’ve heard a lot about the Green New Deal and this is a hot topic right now. And there’s other environmentally focused legislation that people are talking about, and there’s a fear that this is going to hurt growth. You ran a business for many years. So, how do you talk to business people about integrating this kind of thinking and not being afraid of it?

Paul: I think there is a lot of fear about the Green Deal and how it’s going to hurt the economy. But I think the Green Deal, as you say, is actually part of our new economy. And there’s great opportunities for companies that actually embrace that idea. So, you know, disruption and change has always been a great fear for everyone. It’s not just about the current problems we have. But there’s always been disruption ever since I started the business. For example, we had a very strong photo framing business and now everyone has their photos in their smartphones.

So, everything is always continuously being disrupted and I think the new economy is about thinking about ways of maximizing or having productivity, about a business that’s going to be driven by those needs. And I think that there’s a lot of companies that are actually embracing that, they’re doing really well.

If you look at Tesla, for example, their brand is based on not just about great design of cars, because there’s a lot of great cars out there.

There’s also a lot of cars, which may have a car shade for window,  that have batteries, but their mission, I think, from the beginning was about saving the earth. There’s no question that the community around them, the consumers that buy those vehicles and support that brand, are embracing the idea.

Melinda: And the brands that are really afraid, the more rigid you become, the further behind you’re left. It’s like that rush in at some point there’s going to be this critical movement that way. And if you are rigid, do you feel that there’s some brands that are just going to get swept to the side when that happens?

Paul: Particularly today, there’s almost an over-consumption of things. So that when you have brands that are just driven by money, I think that they’re probably going to be left behind. I mean, how are they going to attract great employees?

Take for example, Google, when you talk about Google, when you talk to their employees, they don’t talk about the browser, how great the browser is, or the actual functionality, they talk about how they treat their employees. I mean, it’s a great lesson for all of us because Google’s made their company purpose about people, making people first. So that’s a very strong example of how a company is focused on a purpose rather than just a function, for example.

Melinda: Let’s talk about the cost of avoiding the issue, and I’m not talking necessarily just about the financial cost, but the cost to you if you’re the owner of a brand, and you want to just keep on with your business model, and you don’t want to address this, what happens?

Paul: Well for me, it was always grow or die as a brand, and I think it’s still probably true, you do have to grow and I think you have to adapt. How do you differentiate your product and service today from your competitors, especially when the bar has been raised so high? You talked about consumers activists, they are telling us who the best brands are. And if you are not reaching that level, that high-quality level, you’re not going to make it today. You do have to have super high quality, super functionality, super good customer service, otherwise, you’re going to be called out by the consumer activists, whether they like you or not. And I think if you’re not doing it, your brand’s going to suffer very quickly and probably you will disappear.

Then once you reach that high level where that bar is, how do you differentiate your brand from your competitor? The only way to do it is to have some sort of purpose embedded in your brand. That’s why I really believe in companies that are driven by purpose, social innovation, protecting the earth, taking care of their employees. These are the things that are really going to differentiate them, attract great employees and also consumers will choose them over another great company, but that lacks purpose.

Melinda: Absolutely. So, in my opening, we mentioned the idea that brands can become heroes. And it might sound a little lofty but tell me why you think it’s a legitimate goal that brands should really take seriously.

Paul: I don’t think it is lofty, I think the best brands are heroes. And I think if you start an idea concept for a company based on a heroic idea, I think you have a much better chance of success. We do admire brands that have that kind of purpose. Heroism is something that everyone has always admired and I think it’s something that shows leadership.

I would not start a company today without a purpose that was heroic. For example, you look at companies like method, for example. They’re heroic because they actually came up with cleaning solutions that are not harmful to the earth. So, of course, maybe at the beginning it was a very small brand on a niche market. But now it’s all of a sudden mainstream, it’s almost in every mass merchant across the country and maybe even global now. So, brand as hero, for me is a real idea.

Melinda: I think so too. That was fabulous and I think that’s a great place to end it. So, thanks so much for coming in.

Paul: Thank you.

Melinda: A couple of interesting themes keep recurring as we speak to different people in the industry and Paul summed up a few of these for me pretty succinctly.

One of them is purpose, being anything less than passionately customer focused just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Customers are becoming more concerned about making purchases that align with their values, so they need to know what your values are. And if you try to fake it, they’ll sniff you out in a minute.

This comes down to your brand’s reason to exist and if you’re off track, maybe it’s time to reposition and come up with a value proposition that really meets consumers needs for vision.

Another theme we keep hearing from our guests is the engagement and treatment of employees. Frontline retail jobs have been treated as low paying, unskilled high turnover positions for decades. But when you walk into any environment, being greeted by someone who really wants to be there and is proud to help you with whatever you need, that’s such a fantastic feeling.

It’s the kind of thing that makes you go out of your way to seek out a brand. Can retailers keep using the same old staffing model when there are smaller independent brands on every corner, upping the game by paying higher wages, offering training and giving their staff a career rather than just a job?

We spend a lot of time working on complex customer journey programs. But a point that we always work hard to emphasize is that staffing models including compensation and training need to reflect the level of service and expertise you’re hoping to provide. This is a big topic of conversation in the world of retail banking, where moving to an advice-driven model is becoming a real trend. But given the level of competition across every retail category, it’s time for all retailers to rethink what working for their company means.

The last theme that Paul really brought home was the idea of leadership. Heroism is a really huge idea and I love the idea that a company could take this on as their goal. I mean, why not? Why not be that aspirational? Whether it’s SoulCycle, encouraging us to think about the mind-body connection or Tesla, proving the world doesn’t have to rely on oil, or Patagonia leading the apparel industry in garment recycling. The world needs leaders. Could industry be the surprising place we find them? It’s an interesting idea.

These are some pretty big thoughts to leave you with. So, instead of leaving you hanging, we are going to encourage you to check out Paul’s TED Talk. A little bit more of that passion is always a great thing to share.


Paul Rowan is a mentor, collaborator, designer, speaker, educator and musician. As VP of Design at Umbra, Paul oversaw the efforts to create purposeful, intelligently designed products that people want. He has created innumerable successful designs, while managing diverse internal and external design teams.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email