Brands and politics: sartorial success or fashion faux pas?

Let's get political, political (if you read that in the tune of the Olivia Newton John song, well done). Or not? That is the question we're asking in today's post. 

Look across the pond and it seems like an increasing number of fashion brands are wading into the quagmire that is American politics. While some are still being a little coy, encouraging the public to vote without suggesting their own preference, others are more confident. Patagonia, for example, sewed "vote the assholes out" into the labels of some of their shorts, which is pretty unambiguous and very awesome. Unless you're a Trump supporter. But do politically active brands care? Should they?

Consumer appetite

The traditional queasiness companies have had regarding political allegiance appears to be slowly receding. Some brands are benefitting from that. On the sellout success of the shorts message, a Patagonia spokesperson commented: "What we have found as a company is that when we do the right thing, we sell more." I mean, you can hardly argue with that. 

The research seems to back it up. Accenture Strategy’s 2018 global survey of nearly 30,000 consumers found that 62% of customers want companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices.

Of course, not all of these issues are purely political. They are social and ethical issues too. But if a political party is known for taking actions that exacerbate these issues - or actively go against them - then you're kind of stating your political leaning indirectly. By stating that we, as a brand, are pro-life, I am pretty much saying we despise the DUP and what they stand for. You get the idea. 

Company queasiness 

Despite the actions of some brands (Nike, Gap, Patagonia, for example), there is still a feeling of unease at board level when it comes to expressing political/social opinions as an entity. In a 2019 survey by Deloitte, which canvassed the opinions of 287 CMOs, 80% said they did not believe it was "appropriate" for their brands "to take a stance on politically-charged issues".

This sounds like something that suited white men who remember the days you could smoke cigars in the office would say. I have no evidence to suggest this is the case. It's pure speculation. 

Getting it wrong

But perhaps they are correct. Companies can risk coming across as inauthentic or simply miss the mark (we're looking at you, Pepsi Jenner). But even when their decisions cause backlash, such as John Lewis' decision to stop separating children's clothing into 'boys' and 'girls' categories (the "political correctness gone mad" brigade were angry AF about that one), does it actually matter?

If someone is willing to "boycott" your store because you've removed a label designating an item of clothing to 'boy' or 'girl', were they really that loyal to the brand in the first place? Presumably the persistent pink and blue visual markers aren't enough and they really need those labels and without them, they found themselves bewildered in the chilled food aisle, holding a 'tear n share' garlic flat bread against their child for size. 

A matter of size?

Another question when it comes to expressing socio-political leanings as a company is size. Is it easier or harder to do this as a startup than it is as a household name?

It depends how you look at it. Many new companies, ourselves included, are overtly values-driven and political. Will it affect our success? Maybe. But if we know our 'target' customer (sorry to make it sound like we're about to lob a water balloon at you) then we have an idea of their values. And as a socially-driven, left-leaning brand, the customers we want are the customers whose outlooks and perspectives we admire and share. Sure, the woman who sent us a message expressing offense at our 'trans women are women' vest is unlikely to become a customer. But you know what... we're ok with that. 

For larger, established companies, it might not be so easy to dip a toe into socio-political waters. Keeping a current (and loyal) customer is more important than going after a new one. If you have millions of customers, losing a large chunk of them is going to hurt.

Damn the optics

But even if you're backing climate change initiatives and trying to become a greener, more sustainable business (for example) in the US, this is political even if you don't mention politicians. The Trump administration is riddled with climate change deniers and anti-scientific rhetoric (and, ironically, now Covid19). Isn't it best to just decide what your values are, what your purpose is and what you care about, and just go with it? Commit? Damn the "optics" and the "PR risk". If you lose some customers, surely you'll also gain some who suddenly see you as a brand they can align themselves with? 

What do you guys think? Should fashion brands stay out of politics or are you more likely to support brands that do?


Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash

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