Consumers living in the time of the coronavirus appear to have very little patience for brands that even attempt to benefit from the pandemic or take it as an opportunity to sidestep “brand values” they once held up for all to see.
Cancel culture was in full swing before the pandemic upended daily life and vaporized a decade of job growth in the U.S., but such momentous upheaval has led to a number of brands — ones that normally promote an aura of being a general corporate “do gooder” — of accidentally and avoidably courting public fury while trying to manage the effects on their businesses.
The clearest example may be Everlane and the blowback received after it unceremoniously fired just under 300 workers, nearly its entire retail and back-end workforce. A few of the severed workers took to Twitter claiming they were only a week before assured nothing of the sort would happen and a group of tech workers said everyone who was part of a relatively new union effort was fired. People and customers of the brand filled social media with comments vowing to boycott Everlane. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders took Everlane to task for its actions, calling the brand out for using the pandemic to “union bust” and making a “morally unacceptable” move.
It’s not everyday a recent presidential candidate weighs in on a relatively small brand’s employee decisions. But Everlane has taken a particularly sanctimonious tone in its external and internal communications over the years, calling itself a “radically transparent” company and one focused on the well-being of its workers, the workers in the factories it uses and the planet. Founder and chief executive officer Michael Preysman said in 2017 that “businesses have to push the world forward,” and last month told workers, “Now is the time to show the world what kind of company we are.”
Preysman responded to Sanders in a brief note, saying the Everlane cuts were “the hardest decision we’ve ever made,” but the company had no choice because it is not profitable and has no cash available to it. Since this exchange at the end of March, Everlane has not posted to social media and has only pushed products in its missives to customers, leaving the topic of its workers and financial state unaddressed.
David Mayer, a senior partner at brand consultancy Lippincott, has some sympathy for the position Everlane, and companies like it are in — long-focused on growth, not profits, not big enough to get a major credit facility, forced to cut to the bone in the hopes of survival. But he admitted that “cause-based marketing,” the kind which Everlane built its brand on, was a little hollow to begin with.
“The transparent supply chain is a noble purpose, but it doesn’t translate for a consumer into answering, ‘Why do I buy this clothing?’” Mayer said. “A lot of this cause-based marketing wasn’t ever very successful….These brands are effectively buying share in a crowded space. And that’s doable in a rising market where things are growing and growing.”
That market is gone now. Very possibly the current iteration of cause marketing, at least for the brands that used it as the sole means of differentiation and customer capture, is going with it.
“The brands that are truly meaningful in our lives we pull in instead of them pushing in,” Mayer said.
He added brands that score low on a metric of “connection” versus “progress,” so liking a brand or product for an irrational reason versus liking a brand because it aids you in a tangible way, “are ripe for disruption because they’re resting on their laurels.”
“One of the great things about a recession, not that there are so many, is that you will see smaller companies thrive if they can be truly meaningful, with a purpose, delivering progress for people in an emotionally connecting way,” Mayer added.
But even some efforts by brands to hit that emotional button, offering something helpful or uplifting during the pandemic (efforts that would normally be an easy play for goodwill on social media), are striking people as opportunistic and stoking outrage.
Actor and producer Reese Witherspoon’s apparel brand Draper James earlier this month said it wanted to reward teachers in the U.S. with a free dress. Its marketing has long worked to present a happy-go-lucky appeal with a friendly bent. When the free dress offer hit, it didn’t take a week before hundreds of teachers started complaining on Twitter and Facebook that, not only were they being spammed with brand communications after submitting contact details and teacher I.D.s to be considered for the giveaway, no one seemed to be chosen to receive dresses.
Turns out Draper James only had 250 dresses to give away (something it specified in only some of its communications on the giveaway and not in the initial announcement) and, after the offer was featured in a “Today” segment, it was inundated with applications. Teachers were upset and let it be known on social media, vowing to never buy from the brand and even taking the opportunity to complain its products were too expensive for most teachers to afford. David Carroll, a marketing professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, even went so far as to accuse the brand on Twitter of “Celebrity #Covidwashing” and creating a ploy to give very little in return for “all that free press and personal data.”
Like Everlane, Draper James has been silent on social media since the end of March and has not publicly addressed the gaffe outside of a brand executive telling The New York Times that it “didn’t anticipate the volume of the response.” It also offered all applicants a 30 percent discount code.
Another well-intentioned blunder came from Rothy’s, a Silicon Valley shoe brand that pushes sustainability and comfort for its recycled slip-on shoes. The brand last week e-mailed customers with a “purchase to donate” offer to get nonmedical masks to essential workers. It didn’t go over well and recipients took to social media expressing outrage that a donation of vital masks from Rothy’s would be dependent on purchases — or that it would attempt to drive its revenue with the carrot stick of charity. This is nothing a large number of other brands and retailers haven’t done in the last few weeks, many offering to donate minuscule percentages of online orders, but like Everlane, Rothy’s has taken a very strong “cause” position as a sustainable and socially conscious brand.
To its credit, Rothy’s responded more directly to the complaints than either Everlane or Draper James. It sent a missive directly to shoppers and posted to social media saying the brand had made “a misstep — and we are truly sorry for that.” It then explained that it nixed the entire “purchase to donate” effort and was instead “working rapidly to source 100,000 nonmedical masks to make a bulk donation instead, which will not be tied to purchases.”
Comments on Twitter were equally direct in thanking the brand for owning up and trying to make it right. And Rothy’s has continued to communicate on social media, unlike Everlane and Draper James.
Megan Jones, a partner and vice president of marketing at January Digital, said Rothy’s took the right approach in issuing a mea culpa and struck the right tone.
“This is a moment we’re seeing what brands are made of,” Jones said. “People don’t care if you’re on the ‘we’re donating a million masks’ train or you don’t have any money to give but offer up something and say, ‘This is what I can do today.’ And then you do not blast that out as a p.r. move — I think more people are seeing through that, they see it’s not coming from a good place.”
The concept of “authenticity” in brand marketing was already an industry maxim years before the coronavirus took over global consciousness and the economy with it, with almost every brand harping constantly about how and why they are “authentic” and how that gives them a leg up with consumers. This usually started and ended with choosing the right celebrity or influencer for advertising and, frequently but less often, the right cause to support on social media. But now, with consumer patience for fluff and sales-driven altruism hitting an all-time low, it may have to enter a new, more genuine phase. Offers of paltry donations based on sales of select merchandise won’t cut it during a pandemic that’s essentially shut down the global economy, nor will hiding out until the p.r. storm has passed.
“Consumers are going to expect a new standard of authenticity,” Jones said, pointing to the frank tone some state governors are striking in regular public briefings on the effects of the coronavirus. “We’re going into a recession, maybe a depression, and people are going to shop differently. They’ll need to find value in a brand that is not just in a product.”
So what will that new standard of authenticity look like? No one knows anything for sure right now, but based on recent reactions to brands not putting their money where their marketing is, the age of picking up a cause for an easy p.r. stunt may be finally over.
“We’re seeing this fourth wall between people and brands disappearing,” said Stephanie Friess, senior vice president of public relations at marketing agency Imre. “What you say and do out in the world must be what you say and do internally.”
Again, Friess noted that this was a trend that was already happening, but the coronavirus pandemic did much to accelerate it. “Consumers were becoming more savvy about worker treatment and trying to use causes to drive sales.”
Now with mass firings over Zoom calls, like Rent the Runway did with its entire retail staff, and cause-based brands having to make decisions any corporate entity would have to in the face of financial ruin, Friess is making clients chant with her “External is now internal.”
“Consumers are looking at brands now and asking, ‘did you put humans first?’” she added.
And offering to donate 10 percent of a purchase to a COVID-19 charity does not rise to the level of “human-first” for most consumers, 22 million of whom in the U.S. alone have lost their income anyway due to coronavirus measures. Nor is anyone looking for an “escape” through images of models on a beach that no one, even if they could afford it, can get to, explained Sarah Rutson, an independent brand adviser who’s had various high-profile fashion buying and marketing roles over the years.
“It can’t be about buying right now, you have to be that friend, literally a friend in lockdown that someone can turn to just to communicate with,” Rutson said. “You need to give them something that costs nothing — mental health advice, workouts, easy meals to make at home, advice on homeschooling. People are losing their minds with anxiety.”
While Rutson admitted that, yes, there are still some people out in the world spending large sums of money, they’re “few and far between” and is not at all in line with where most consumers’ heads are, or where they will be in the next year, if not more. She rejects the idea that people will come out of strict lockdown measures and enact a new wave of consumerism.
“When it comes to consumer sentiment, we’re going to come back into a very wounded environment,” Rutson said. “I’ve got clients saying people are going to come out and escape, like coming out of jail. That sensibility, pushing along as if nothing has happened, is not going to wash. It will take a while to recover from this.”
She foresees many companies, particularly those of smaller scale, coming back to work with much smaller staffs and more work to do. But she hopes, and is advising clients, that this is the time for a full industry “reset.” From fewer, better, longer lasting collections, more in tune with what people want and need to buy, to internal operations and treatment of workers coming into line with the positive public image most companies work very hard to project.
“You have to go internally before you go externally,” Rutson said, adding that she hopes the corporate culture when things start to get up and running again is not “you’re lucky to have a job.” She added that the way a company treats it workers will also become more important to the public, which seems to have a new awareness of people working in jobs that were largely unnoticed before, like delivery workers, grocery clerks and retail employees.
“Your workers, they are the people who are your brand, the people who make the connection with your brand to the world,” Rutson said. “If you can’t lead them and inspire them and treat them well internally, you can’t do it externally for the world.”
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