Brand Narratives with Purpose for a Curated Learning Experience
Updated: Jul 17
Understanding a brand, and their identity should be part of the experience when forming a relationship with them. When a brand can capture their essence in everything they do, and establish trust with their consumer, I view it as a story to learn from. Brands rooted in history, that tug at my emotional heart strings should be commended by their continued success at keeping a connection to their core, and to the customer who needs them. American brands that have been around for quite some time were all built with a solid purpose. As we go through this pandemic year, the future of the product we buy will have to rely on trust and transparency. Brands face the challenge of making sure to support consumers and boost positive feelings, relying on pride, self-expression and comfort to re-establish connection. Will a brand history and what they have always done, be enough to connect with consumers of the future? An recent article in Business of Fashion talked about marketing in the age of COVID-19. A brand consultant they spoke to said, "Rather than blasting customers with typical PR talk, brands must reconsider their values, who they are targeting and what they really want to say. This might include educating consumers on a brand’s behind-the-scenes operations or highlighting a specific cause. Highlighting that there is “a real person behind [a] brand, creates a consciousness on the side of the consumer that they didn’t have before… and that will be very effective in creating brand loyalty.”
When trying to paint this picture for my students, I tend to look back in history and wish there could be an exhibit or experiential tool to visit for almost every topic. The picture above was from a trip I took my students on to the Ford Hub, an experiential marketing store in the Oculus at the World Trade Center in New York. This "hub" was a marketing concept geared at telling the story of motor vehicles, and why the Ford company is set to build the city of tomorrow by being innovative within the realm of transportation. If future generations are more concerned about the environment and emissions from motor vehicles, how will the future look when they limit their car purchases, or decide to live in an area where they won't need their own transportation? It is the brand that uses their history to make way for the future that will survive.
Because I live and work in America, I wanted to take a deeper look into some old, iconic brands that were built tough just like Ford, whose businesses were based on the need of the American people. It is a time in history where we as citizens are re-establishing a connection to the brands closer to home, because we are all forced to be closer to home. I teach in fashion studies, so I chose a few apparel brands that have stood the test of time through major global crisis' and persevered. I wanted to look at the brands that reach an emotional connection with their consumer based upon the story they tell about who they are. Now that different needs exist for a changing world, where do these brands stand and how does their story reflect and help achieve what we as consumers and a country need right now? Can we pull out the unique features of each of these brands with their deep history in consumerism, ideals, views, philanthropy and basis for what they believe to meet the demands of the future? The brands I chose have particular things in common, and that is to continue on with their mission of purpose, while continuing to look ahead to a future that they most definitely can be a part of. What they will need along with so many others, are progressive values to continue being a part of the consumer conversation.
These particular iconic brands offer authenticity in the following ways:
Their advertising expresses what they stand for
They profess the things that they believe and practice
They grow with a goal and force for good
They know their audience and provide good messaging
Their strong purpose and health culture make employees feel liked and connected
They use the wisdom of original storytelling to express what they mean
They don't have to say much for their customers to understand
They share what makes them feel joy, love and excitement
They protect and nurture the qualities that make their brand unique
They trust by showing trust
A brand that gets better with age is a brand that embodies the story and lives of their consumers, and the people they originally built the product for—offering an honest connection. The rugged quality of this brand was born in 1850 with a pioneer spirit and a love for the outdoors. Their mission is “To outfit the bold and the adventurers”, with worldwide reputation for quality and durability. Filson's name became synonymous with reliability, satisfaction and honest values. Here is a quote from the 1914 catalog: "To our customers: if a man is going North, he should come to us for his outfit, because we have obtained our ideas of what is best to wear in that country from the experience of the man from the North -- not merely one -- but hundreds of them. Our materials are the very best obtainable, for we know that the best is none too good and that quality is of vital importance. You can depend absolutely upon our goods both as to material and workmanship."
The stories told about what it was like to survive in cold and bitter places such as the Yukon is how Filson designed their goods, and is evident throughout the history of this brand. It is through this connection with the humans that used their product that the brand can speak to most confidently. "He owned his own mill and manufactured Mackinaw Wool clothing and blankets, knit goods, as well as selling boots, shoes, moccasins and sleeping bags specially designed for the frigid North. Filson kept in close contact with his customers, improving his goods to meet their specific needs. The stampeders depended on Filson. In that era, clothing wasn't a matter of choice, but of survival." "Tough, comfortable outdoor clothing for hunters and anglers, engineers and explorers, mariners and miners. The Gold Rush faded into history, but Filson kept listening to his customers, and outdoorsmen kept coming to Filson for rugged clothes. Drawing from his past experience outfitting loggers, he soon added clothing for the timber industry, including the Filson Cruiser, the garment that was to earn Filson a place in history." Comfort, protection and durability never go out of style. Think about their use of the original material, Rugged Twill. A natural and tough and protective material originally used in the forestry service to help them navigate the dense forest, and later adopted by hunters. To continue this type of heritage for the future, designers have to be in tune with the story and the history, but it’s also about pushing it into the future. Traditional pieces are great to stay with heritage, and cannot go anywhere because the customer demands it, but it is telling this story while taking it into the future that is important.
An article in Fast Company wrote about the time when the brand wanted to start telling this amazing story. The approach they landed on was more about documenting the Filson lifestyle, rather than creating a traditional ad. The creative director, Alex Carleton was inspired by the book, The Call Of The Wild, a story of perseverance and set in the same time period that the brand started in. He states, “We go to these wild places with friends of the brand, going to bush camps, going with geologists up to the glaciers in Alaska, meet the Iditarod folks, be out there with outdoorsmen and let’s document it,” adding that plans include telling more of these stories with video. “It’s about communicating a connection with a lifestyle.” This lifestyle is also the connection to the wilderness in the Pacific Northwest as he also stated in the article, “The brand can be this conduit that takes people out of their everyday lives and transport them here. There’s something fascinating about taking the narrative of the wilderness and adventure, and introducing that into places like New York City or London. I believe it’s very engaging and a story that people want to connect to.”
Another great tool brands use to connect with future generations is to tell real stories through social platforms, and they did just that with their "Way of Life series" campaign. A story in Digiday talks about it in an article about influencer marketing. "Filson profiled “ordinary” people—people we wouldn’t usually expect to find in a marketing campaign. One such story is of the U.S. Forest Service’s elite group of smokejumpers, firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wild fires. Filson sent storyteller Charles Post and photographer Cole Barash to Redmond, Oregon, to profile this group and their lifestyle as smokejumpers. While Charles and Cole have close to 100,000 Instagram followers between them, Filson didn’t send them gear with the agreement that they’d post images wearing the items. Instead, Filson went right to where the story is, and Charles and Cole helped facilitate the more authentic content—user inspired content—for Filson, which the brand then posted to its owned channels."
Schott NYC is a classic brand, produced by hand for over 100 years and infused in American culture beginning with the sons of a Russian immigrant who started making raincoats in a basement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you have been to this part of the city, you are well aware about the immigrant culture that once bustled through the streets and the hardships that were felt. New York City was built around people like the Schott family. From building coats for the working class, to a more leisurely styled approach of a motorcyclist—both durable and rugged, yet a biker was synonymous for excitement, adventure and danger. From the fascination of bikers to producing a "bomber jacket" to serve and protect men fighting for liberty, to then the classic wool naval pea coat, this brand was built tough with a purpose to serve.
A short time later, the product was popular with the punk rock movement, and soon peacoats, duffle coats, flight jackets, motorcycle jackets, nylon outerwear, knits and sportswear became available worldwide as "Schott NYC represented the heritage of America and the rebel inside everyone. A strong sense of American pride is behind every Peacoat's anchor buttons. The courage to face the uncertainty on the open road and all the freedom that comes with it, lives on in the hearts of the Schott family as they look towards the next hundred years as a true American Original."
To progress towards the future, in 2013 Schott NYC had begun to open physical retail locations. To boost sales in their new store locations, Schott NYC partnered with Brand Networks, a cross-channel media solutions provider, to launch a hyper-local social media campaign running across Facebook and Instagram, from April through May of 2018. According to a Glossy article, "part of that involved training in-store employees to post daily to the brand’s local accounts, Brand Networks also helped the brand with a paid social media strategy. For the paid efforts, Brand Networks leveraged its audience tools: It used Schott NYC’s existing data on the types of customers who had previously purchased $800 leather jackets from the brand. Schott NYC looked at everything from gender, proximity, income and interest to then find similar audiences in the Chicago area and ideal prospects to target." What this tells me about the company is that a local approach to marketing ensures that they want to understand the customers of that area, and to get a little more closer to touch and experience what the people and customer of that city feels each day.
Patagonia is part of a movement for change. This change happens in many ways across the company, and their use of narrative and storytelling is amazing. They get real with the stories they tell and provide such in-depth view into the lives of the people that would use their product, and the people who are fighting for the same causes as them. Causes that are built from a core of the brand gives you a sense of connection, just as a close friend. Their films like Becoming Ruby, a mountain biking film about inclusion, identity and hand drawn heroes feature the activities common to their product and is entertaining while educational. Or you can read an activism story that is more culture and creative based such as the The Threshold by Alejandra Oliva. Her story was not one of adventure or action, rather it takes you back to nature, to view the world from a different perspective during a global pandemic. "And even now, as the constraints of your world have narrowed down to the immediate and deeply familiar—your home, your neighborhood, your family—there is still a worry that other, greater changes lie ahead." I love her description of the earth and her relationship to the world, and what we as a human society our living through. This is what I mean when I say that Patagonia's cause reaches us all on some level. That even on a small scale, the nature we love is being replaced by greed. With her words of advice to just fall in love too with the world around us.
Every sport category they design offers a Patagonia community and activists who share in their love for activity and the environment. To stay true to each piece of communication, they highlight anything that protects the places we live, play and operate. Their marketing campaigns are honest, and without coming out and asking for it, they sort of come out and ask consumers to help them do their part in buying less, and buying quality. You are then part of a group that is above all else, making a difference which should ultimately feel like a win, right? Seems its much better than continuing to contribute to mass consumerism. There is this connection to nature that they continue to speak to and use their voice to connect consumers with unique content and partnerships to engage with. Their efforts resonate effectively with consumers because it is natural to them. One article stated, "Patagonia believes so deeply in sustainability and purposeful-consumption that they encouraged society just before Black Friday to refrain from buying their product, and whatever else they don’t actually need. What better way to target individuals driven in benefiting their environment and supporting sustainable companies by showing them you feel the same way. In addition, since this well-articulated campaign, Patagonia has donated 100% of their Black Friday sales to organizations that help the planet, subconsciously helping customers justify their purchases. Rather than attempting to advertise to sell products, Patagonia has devoted their brand to providing consumers with content and products that will benefit their lives and interests."
The topic of sustainable fashion is a big one, and something that is crucial to preserving our planet's resources. There is so much to say about how a brand like Patagonia is a leader in this initiative, way before it ever became a focus. It was their mission to use the earth for good, and to develop quality product that lasts a long time. I love that it's a brand that has had a sudden resurgence of popularity with fashion sub-cultures, and not just west coast surfers, hikers, fisherman and the like. It is a now a brand for everyone all over the globe, that supports grassroots groups working to find solutions to the global environmental crisis.
"At Patagonia, we appreciate that all life on earth is under threat of extinction. We’re using the resources we have—our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations—to do something about it." In order to build a great product, they must rely on function, repairability and durability. To limit ecological impacts and offer goods that last for generations. Our criteria for the best product rests on function, repairability, and, foremost, durability. Among the most direct ways we can limit ecological impacts is with goods that last for generations or can be recycled so the materials in them remain in use. Making the best product matters for saving the planet. "The challenges we face as a society require leadership. Once we identify a problem, we act. We embrace risk and act to protect and restore the stability, integrity and beauty of the web of life. Our success—and much of the fun—lies in developing new ways to do things." They have multiple programs, and information on their transparency and efforts can be found at The Hidden Cost of Clothes. Their latest Worn Wear program allows consumers who own the product to own it for a long time because if they make it well from the beginning, then they can live by their mission of "getting more use out of the stuff we already own."
The year 1889 was a time of steel, steam, and locomotives. The brand Carhartt believed in the strong, hardworking men and women in this country who made it run and building a 'just and honest' company. "Carhartt’s trademark duck canvas in its signature ‘Hamilton’ brown is both durable and an instant signifier of the brand’s founding ethos of quality craftsmanship meeting the highest standards of wearability." This workmanship is visible in their campaigns, and felt with emotion when you read their advertisements. "In times of international conflict, Carhartt committed to “backing the attack.” The company offered seven Carhartt facilities to the government for the purpose of creating uniforms for the U.S. military in World War I. During World War II, the company produced coveralls for soldiers and support personnel, jungle suits for Marines in the Pacific, and workwear for women entering the factories on the home front. In addition to bib overalls, many garments in today’s product line have historic roots. The Carhartt Archive holds ads for the legendary Carhartt Chore Coat (known historically as the “Engineer Sack Coat” or simply the “Coat”) dating back to 1917. The coat remains largely unchanged to this day. Fast forward to the 1970s, massive orders for the construction of the Alaska Pipeline helped grow the brand, and Carhartt undeniably showed that its products could survive and thrive in the most rugged conditions on Earth."
I use their Work in Progress label as an example in class because it resonates with my students, and they are the generation that feels a close connection to it. "With pieces that flow freely between utilitarian, streetwear, and skate culture, the label’s logo remains a characteristic symbol of all things American. "The vision of Carhartt carries on today both in principle and aesthetic, leading to Work in Progress’ initial distribution in the nineties of a selection of original workwear garments tailored for a European market. Shifting from working class to varsity leanings, the collection’s pieces are by no means identity-limiting. Carhartt WIP offers an aesthetic that allows for the modern man to either reinforce or reinterpret the definition of Americana by way of a more expansive and progressive outlook on contemporary men’s fashion." For the youth to represent an old brand that began by producing overalls for railroad workers, under the motto, “Honest value for an honest dollar,” is a true testament to how they have evolved as a brand. Interest with consumers outside blue-collar trades came during the 1970s and 1980s. More people began to learn about the brand as big names in the hip-hop music industry started to wear Carhartt.