In a marketplace where consumers are overwhelmed with messages from peers and the private sector, the search for novel ways of engagement have become overextended; brands grounded in social purpose have a unique opportunity to leverage a higher order conversation with their community. By conversation, we mean the proprietary point of view your brand can lead in the context of positively impacting culture both inside and outside your business. It is a way of thinking that others can engage with or relate to, an enduring idea of societal aspiration. Conversations can range from the realm of pure brand marketing and expressions of your and society’s current state, to defining an envisioned ‘end-state’ that projects an ideal future for which your brand can contribute towards attaining. This latter perspective is where cultural impact happens.
Let’s look at the evolution of a conversation through the case study of a prominent brand in the responsible consumption and environmental impact space, Patagonia. The below overview is not exhaustive of all Patagonia’s initiatives, though provides an overview of how their conversation builds and evolves over time.
Pre-2005: Materials Innovation
Since inception, Patagonia has been lauded as an innovator in reducing environmental impact, and in its earlier days focused on improving the materiality of its products, including switching to 100% organic cotton in 1996.
2005: Common Threads Garment Recycling Program
The early manifestations of its beliefs in creating a closed loop system, Patagonia introduces its Common Threads Recycling Program with the ambition to make all clothes recyclable within five years. Through a four-step program, they achieved this goal in Fall 2011.
2007: Footprint Chronicles
Turning the spotlight on itself, Patagonia launches The Footprint Chronicles to document in detail their supply chain. Through a commitment to transparency across their social and environmental impacts, Patagonia’s motivation to reduce or eliminate harm became tangible, and, very public.
2009: Sustainable Apparel Coalition
In an unlikely partnership, the idea for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was born from a relationship between Patagonia and Walmart. After Patagonia created a successful assessment tool for Walmart’s supply chain, the two decided to work on a larger sustainability assessment tool for footwear and apparel industries. After founding the Coalition with twelve member companies, the organization has since expanded to more than 45 members, including Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, New Balance and Nordstrom.
2010: Common Threads: Reduce, Repair, Reuse and Recycle
Expanding from its initial program in 2005, Patagonia adds Reduce, Repair, Reuse to Clothes Recycling. The program’s ask? Customers wear less and repair more. In addition to asking customers to reduce garment consumption – some say a risky move in an era of fast fashion – Patagonia provides insights on how to repair damaged goods through a series of care guides. Finally, for reuse, the brand helps its customers sell, trade or donate clothes.
2011: Don’t Buy This Jacket
To the shock of many, Patagonia releases an ad in The New York Times on Black Friday to discourage the culture of consumption. This bold statement is a testament to the brand’s commitment and conviction to its higher order conversation.
2013: Worn Wear
To further encourage people to take care of their gear by washing and repairing as needed, Patagonia creates its Worn Wear program to celebrate quality products and their relationship to all our lives. Coming to life in a film about the stories we wear, Patagonia puts its consumer at the front and center of its movement.
2015: Worn Wear Tour
Getting out in the community to bring its mission and activism to life, Patagonia launches a cross-country mission to change people’s relationship with stuff. The brand’s Worn Wear Mobile Tour travels from west to east coast offering free repairs as well as lessons for how customers can fix their own gear.
To own, amplify and build a conversation that shifts behavior and culture, while also building your business, we should look at 5 best practice insights:
- Start strong
Creating a conversation that is meaningful to your brand, business and culture requires bold thinking. At the outset, and while consulting your brand’s appetite for risk, start a conversation that surprises some, delights others, but must put your industry and category outside the comfort zone.
- Design to last.
Evaluating if the right conversation requires a long-term lens, asking ‘will this still be relevant, aspirational and meaningful in five or ten years time?’
- Don’t limit your conversation to language – take action.
Bring your conversation to life in experiential ways that immerse customers in your envisioned future and invite them to participate in its creation.
- Build on the past.
Over time you will be able to glean insights as to how best your conversation resonates with stakeholders, from both an execution and messaging standpoint. Be sure to build on the milestone activities and language of your conversation as a foundation for future amplification.
- Embrace your customers’ conversations.
The ultimate social proof of your conversation becoming part of culture and behavioral shifts happen when your customers begin to share their stories in its context. At this stage, the most powerful conversation then becomes those shared by your customer community – celebrate them.
If you’d like to learn more and gain insight how your brand can lead a cultural conversation, we invite you to attend our 4th Annual We First Summit on October 6-7 2015. More information can be found here.