It’s no secret to say that the waters are choppy for retail brands in 2019. In fact, it’s very much on the verge of becoming an outright cliché. This doesn’t change the fact that storefronts, jobs and even entire businesses are online and for a long time, the most obvious route to tackle these treacherous seas was to hop in a jet plane and fly over them. Cut costs wherever possible, perhaps at the expense of moral obligation in the production line. This attempt to circumnavigate the issues involves shiny marketing (which to the ultra-aware consumer appears tone-deaf) or adopting models to increase stock which can be shifted quickly to arrest declining sales
The launch of Kim Kardashian’s brand Kimono was trumpeted with much aplomb while not a single soul in the marketing team seemed aware of the centuries old traditional Japanese garment and the offense the comparison caused (the backtrack had to happen and the brand name pulled, now rebranded as ‘Skims’). Dial the clock only slightly further back to McDonald’s quite horrifying attempt at demonstrating brand purpose by suggesting the devastating loss of a family member could be mollified by discovering they ordered the same burger as you.
Retail fashion also tended to take a ride on shortcut airways with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Versace launching “Fast Luxury” items, often sewn in the same factories as high street items, totally betraying the high-end quality promise that this type of fashion stands for. Of course, it was consumer habits that led brands down this path but as ever, it is the consumer’s prerogative to change their mind on a sixpence, and that they have done.
The most salient advice in this space comes from clothing brand Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard who says, “You can’t reverse into brand purpose through marketing”. The true route to addressing the issues retail faces in this area is to hop in the yacht and sale over the choppy seas, Greta Thunberg-style. We are fast entering a world where you are judged not by the quality of the brands you buy but by the quality of that brand’s moral stature. It’s not whether your clothes look good or your food is delicious, it’s whether your workers were paid fairly while it was made, or if you actively damaged the planet getting that food to the consumers’ plate.
Retail brands need to assess their purpose not just from a marketing standpoint, but from a day to day operational standpoint. The changes must be made first and then you can talk about them to engage with the increasingly morally orientated consumer. For many organisations, it’s a slow turn towards rectifying morally ambiguous practices, which maybe endemic in all businesses in your corner of retail. But the consumer is turning faster. While not the only issue in play, the desire to protect historic business practices above addressing our consumers moral needs is a considerable contributing factor to the woes of the high street. The blueprint to realign the moral compass is out there as demonstrated by Patagonia, but there is evidently a lot of baulking at the hard work required to redress the balance. There is however a clock ticking swiftly with hands moving ever further away from “nice to have” towards “imperative for survival”.