As originally seen on PRWeek

It’s the age-old red-carpet question – “who are you wearing?” But in today’s culture of the hyper-informed consumer, fashion brands are faced with another query – “what do you stand for?” For fashion brands in today’s society, the creation of apparel just for aesthetic is out, and supporting the growing philanthropic tendencies of the younger consumer base is in. As society continues to face complex issues and crises, many young adults aim to wear clothing that stands for a relevant cause and makes more than just a fashion statement.  And for brands, it is paramount that they strive for positive change in order to keep and attract a new consumer base, but most importantly, one that is authentic to who they are as a brand.

Take a look at this year’s Met Gala, fashion’s biggest night, where many of us were glued to the red-carpet coverage, ready to send out “get the look” pitches for clients. Among the sea of gowns meant to fit with the Gilded Glamour theme, was an undercurrent of causal messaging that celebs made sure to tout. Prabal Gurung’s celebrity muses explored the theme of “who gets to be American” to spotlight the immigrant journey. Sustainability, fashion’s biggest buzzword, was also on the agenda. Stars like Billie Eilish wore a completely upcycled Gucci gown at the event. And that’s just the tip of the fashion pyramid, the theme of doing good has trickled down to mass market brands and all those that live in-between.

Gen-Z, the latest consumer prize for many brands, values social and environmental issues above all else. And those issues are backed by their purchasing habits and support for brands. But this support is tenuous based on brands that are truly walking the walk. A recent survey by Adolescent Content, a Gen Z creative consultancy, found that 78 percent are suspicious of a brand’s motivation and true commitment to its ideals. They don’t just want corporations to talk about the good they are doing; they want to see it in real-time. And the cyclical fashion industry is one that can pay the price the most of this consumer base, which has low brand tolerance and a penchant for transparency, doesn’t buy in.

REEF, an industry leader in beach and lifestyle footwear and a Coyne PR client, considers its brand purpose work to be just as important, if not more so, than the unmatched comfort of its shoes. REEF’s commitment to social and environmental work has become a key brand tentpole. “It’s clear that today’s consumers are after more than just a product, they are looking for brands to be extensions of their values and their personal missions, but connecting on values isn’t easy,” said REEF’s Senior Director of Marketing, Jen Wilson.

“Any disingenuous attempt to support a value that doesn’t align with your brand can do more damage than good,” continued Wilson. “At REEF, our authenticity comes from understanding who we are as a brand, what forms our unique DNA and acting on that in everything that we do, from the products we make to the organizations and values that we support. When we’re consistently launching messaging, activations, and events that support oceans, beaches and coral reefs, it builds trust and credibility with our consumers because it’s a genuine act that reinforces who we are.”    

In a market where every brand wants to “do good” to attract consumer loyalty, but most don’t know where to start to make a real, authentic difference, here are some tips for getting both media and consumers interested in your fashion brand’s efforts to not just make people look good, but also feel good wearing your brand.

Be True to Your Brand DNA: Pick a cause that makes sense to the ethos of your brand. From being a minority-founded brand that supports empowerment causes to a product made in an underdeveloped nation that gives back to the area, brands in a certain community paying it forward by helping that same community thrive makes sense. Consumers will see the connection and the storytelling will offer more media opportunities. Like Wilson mentioned above, REEF is a brand steeped in beach culture, so its passionate drive to help the world’s oceans and beaches is synergistic.

Collab to Gain Cache: For brands that haven’t found their philanthropic identity yet or want to dip their toe into the water slowly, a product collab with a brand that’s aspirational to your desired consumer is a great marketing strategy. Whether it’s a brand that will help you connect with a younger audience or one that already supports a noteworthy cause, being adjacent to that will start to elevate your own brand in the eyes of consumers. Not to mention, fashion collaborations that have synergy lead to successfully earned media coverage.

Be Purposeful: Whether it’s Pride Month or Women’s History Month, many brands want to have a voice and share their support for similar noteworthy causes. Yet, we’ve seen brands being called out for “pink washing” and now “rainbow washing” in an effort to garner attention.  It’s imperative for brands to plan a purpose strategy that is meaningful and consistent. Look into smaller organizations that may not get as much funding, but are doing work on the ground level, to support. Or think about how you can elevate people in the actual community – LGBTQ+ artists, environmental researchers, etc. – by giving them your brand’s platform in some capacity, whether that be through product design or social media content.

Don’t Be One and Done: Once you’ve found a cause or program that feels right, champion it for more than just a month and think about the long-term. It can be easy to support moments in time, and while of-the-moment giving is important, supporting a cause that works for your brand should be a marathon, not a sprint. In order to build a connection between your brand and cause, there has to be a consistent drumbeat of causal awareness.

With issues that matter growing by the day, clients and internal colleagues are asking us as PR professionals what the company’s stance on these issues should be. It’s important to lead with authenticity when creating and evaluating the right purpose strategy. Philanthropy in fashion is nothing new, but it’s never been more “on trend” to stand for something as a brand.