I recently got in a discussion with my parents the other day about Taylor Swift. I was explaining to them why I was so impressed by her Look What You Made Me Do music video even though I’m not a huge fan of her music and ended up going into a pretty long-winded monologue. I told my parents about her drama with Kimye and how Swifties everywhere are going crazy for all the symbolism in her latest video, to which they responded with a concerned look and questions about my priorities.
After a few digressions into the Kardashians’ lifestyle and trash TV/pop culture, I made the point that as a Millennial, I am far more concerned with paying attention to brands and celebrities when it comes to consumerism than probably any generation before me. It’s the reason I like Chrissy Teigen more than Gwyneth Paltrow. Why Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus don’t pop up on my playlists as much. Why I prefer Target to Walmart. And why I will never buy a pair of glasses from anywhere other than Warby Parker.
Conscious consumerism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is quite empowering to know that the money I spend on a product or the time I spend paying attention to someone/something is making some a difference, regardless of how small it might be. On the other, it can be quite exhausting, as my stepmom pointed out to me, to invest so much energy into things that seem minuscule in the broader context of life. Who cares if my purchase of a pair of glasses also gives a pair to someone in need as long as the glasses I actually receive are worth the money?
Here’s where I think the tide of brand identity is changing.
I’m not sure if it’s the Millennial/Gen Z virtual connectedness or the fact that we all just have too much time on our hands, but now more than ever we are paying close attention to people and companies in the public eye. And now more than ever, dedication to an important cause, or any cause for that matter, can separate an excellent brand from a mediocre one. (It seems ironic – or maybe tragic is the word – that our Cheeto Puff of a president got to his position the way he did.)
Let me illustrate an example for you.
Say you want to buy a pair of Millennial Pink ankle socks. Company A and Company B both sell high-end socks that match the image you have in your mind precisely. They are made of the same material, listed at the same price, and can be shipped at the same speed so you can have your Millennial Pink ankle socks on your doorstep just in time for that #ootd you’ve been planning. Before you make a decision about which store to buy from, though, something catches your eye.
On the Company A website, you read that Company A is dedicated to otter separation prevention*. After reading a little more, you learn that the Company A founder has a personal connection to otter livelihood and that otters are monogamous creatures who mate for life – something that has recently been threatened by XYZ problem. Company A founder recognized the tragedy of wide-spread otter separation, so Company A founder resolved to help our dear otter friends by donating a portion of the profits from each Company A sock purchase.
Now, from which company do you intend to buy your Millennial Pink ankle socks? Company A, which has aligned itself with a broader mission to incur positive change? Or Company B, whose concern with otter separation is virtually nonexistent?
Otter separation might not be very prominent on your radar of problems in the world, but if you have the option to do help solve a problem you might not do anything about otherwise, why would you deliberately choose against said option altogether? Unless you detest otters at the core of your being, you probably wouldn’t.
But who detests otters?
(*At least to my knowledge, otter separation is not a real problem at this current juncture. Here’s an adorable article about otters holding hands while they sleep to relieve you of your otter-related anxiety.)
Everyone has at least one cause about which they’re passionate. For some people it’s the big ones: cancer research, world hunger, climate change, etc. For others it might be less popular but no less important causes that are near and dear to their hearts: mental illness awareness, research and prevention for other medical conditions, education funding/resources for high-poverty countries, animal endangerment, so on and so forth. We all have something that motivates us to make the world a better place – or at least, I’m not cynical enough to believe some people are entirely motivated by self-interest.
As long as we have something that motivates us to affect change, that motivation will influence our purchasing choices for things even as simple as socks. I don’t know a ton about business practices when they’re mixed with philanthropic efforts, but the first brand I remember that prioritized conscious consumerism is TOMS.
Anybody else remember the first time they heard of the One-for-One campaign?
I think the first time I heard about it was in a commercial for AT&T. Blake Mycoskie, the founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” at TOMS was going on about how AT&T was the best solution for his connectivity problems when he was traveling around the world. In the midst of his blabbering about Wi-Fi this and high speed that I became interested in learning more about this company that helped give shoes to the shoeless.
I remember cringing as a 15-year-old when I saw the $60 price tag for a pair of canvas shoes, but I was quickly reminded that it was really a BOGO deal that aided someone whose tootsies needed relief more than mine. Obviously, other people came to the same realizations as this novel One-for-One philosophy captured the country’s need to wear comfortable shoes and share them with others. (If I’m being honest, they could have stopped at “shoes” and I would still be on board.)
Of course, this can cross into tricky territory when people use philanthropic causes solely as a marketing tactic. You don’t even have to dig very deeply to find an example of a business mismanaging money that was received under the pretense of a good cause or a public figure in the tangles of hypocrisy. I think for the most part, though, people are pretty quick to weed out the sincere from the insidious.
Brands’ missions matter because long-gone are the days when purchases were simply purchases. At a time when so many people feel like their voices don’t matter in our current political landscape, consumers are beginning to find another way to express what they think is important. In addition to voting at the ballot box, people are voting with dollars and cents. And businesses/celebrities who understand this trend can find themselves in a position above the rest.
I want to know what you think! What do you think about brands using philanthropy as a part of their attraction? Is it important? Does it matter? Leave a comment and let me know!