How to Make a Purpose-Driven Apparel Brand
While this year’s foray into “corporate activism” has been rather pathetic, it is still an important opportunity to convey principles that we as consumers expect from a brand. With that in mind, we asked industry veteran Joseph Keefer to break down what a brand needs to do to be truly purpose-driven.
If you’ve looked around and seen what has happened in the past few months, you have realized that the shit has to change. We have to evaluate ourselves, our companies, our values and the way we work.
Who am I? I’m Joseph Keefer, born in DC, raised in the shadow of the city’s hardcore music scene; I am purpose-driven and have 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. I currently have a consulting firm in New York, KFR Studio, that provides end-to-end fashion solutions for brands and designers.
As someone who works with a wide variety of brands, I see this as a good time for companies to grapple with their guiding principles and goals. Many brands have an internal set of principles and goals to guide them – it’s a useful map for many businesses to follow. There’s no better time to look at the set of your own business and discuss how it can change and how it can steer your business forward.
In the ever growing world of empowerment on social media, we all recognize that each individual’s voice has a platform. It’s becoming increasingly important what that means for your brand. With the increasing visibility and speed of information, it is important to understand the current environment and issues such as Black Lives Matter, systematic racism and police brutality. How do these problems affect your environment and your brand? Take the time to read, listen, and learn and summarize the information in a way that your company can connect with and communicate effectively – remember, it is important that you really care.
The real question is: How do you implement these concerns effectively and respectfully through your company’s platform? By no means is this an all-in-one plan, just a guideline with a few steps to answer that question.
Choose a cause
Why did you choose this cause and how are you going to help this cause? This part is easiest on paper. Inform yourself and your team about the current social / political environment and decide together which concerns correspond to your perspectives. It is important to understand that if your brand is making a choice, that thing is not a fad for your business. The position that your company takes for a cause must become an integral part of your company’s history, even if your commitment is more passive, e.g. part of the proceeds. Authenticity and care for the chosen concern are not only extremely important on a human level, but also lead to a more successful partnership for everyone involved. Customers can sniff out bullshit, and the last thing you want to do is ride a wave of change just to stay relevant – don’t be Pepsi.
Determine the posture
This is an important point – it’s about the forward-looking message of how the brand plans to incorporate this new, purpose-built initiative into your current structure. How your brand aligns and supports your chosen cause will play a huge role in how successful the partnership can be. For example, if you decide to take a big step, you should be guided by a sustainability-focused message and ethos. It’s becoming a major brand identity touchpoint and you need to make sure your entire supply chain is compliant. If your brand doesn’t actively hold everyone accountable, it damages your message, your brand and, more importantly, the root cause. Simple – don’t be a poser; If you want to do the damn thing, do it. The damage to the viability of the cause you support can have a huge impact on your community: “If Brand X couldn’t even do it, why should I care?”
Structure your support
Look, we all admit – giving any amount is great. However, remember that perceiving what you are giving is also important. When selling at a luxury price, make sure that your contribution is as effective as the price of your product on your customer’s wallet. Connect with your cause and find secondary ways for your company and employees to keep committed to support. Provide your employees with resources for further learning and engagement. Include an open dialogue between your team so ideas and perspectives can be shared. Remember, it’s not just about raising money, it’s about making meaningful changes. For example, as you raise awareness and money on bond funds, you can find a way to orient yourself to legal resources, education, and job opportunities for those who go through the system. If you think products or collaborations are beneficial in raising awareness and making money, use tact. Make sure the product respects your concern in a respectful and effective manner. Plus, when you’re designing a product for a purpose and it comes out of nowhere, it can feel forced and wrong – leave no room for cynicism with your customers.
While it may seem cynical, you run a business and that business must continue to exist. With this in mind, setting up a donation program in your company can help with your taxes; it works for the billionaire class so why not follow suit? Many countries have incentivized corporate donations by giving cheap tax breaks to those who do so. Talk to your accountant about the loopholes, how your altruism can help you get stuck in the system, and how these are affecting your finances. It’s important to understand how your donations will affect your company’s margins and bottom line. Assess and understand your cost structure and make sure your business and your contributions to the cause thrive. Remember, when your company goes out of business, your donations and influence will go away.
Activate, engage and train
Let your community know about your concern and how it aligns with your brand’s goals and principles. Make a difference. At the end of the day, improving your business is about a lot more than just the message – it’s the action points your brand can bring to the table. Messaging and awareness are great when supported by actions. Making a difference through your brand’s contributions can take many forms: some are very open-minded, like Ben & Jerry’s (grow up forever, hire ex-inmates and loudly condemn white supremacy) or Brain Dead (look at their community and grew up over half a year) mill in a week), some less, but still effective – find the path that feels most natural for your business.
All in all, I know this is not popular to say, but the days of appealing to the masses are behind us. Starting a fashion brand is about communicating a point of view, so do that – if not, you’re in the wrong business. The stronger your brand identity, the more deeply like-minded people are connected. Find your cause and your voice – the right audience will respond.