Two people doing yoga poses outdoors while wearing Girlfriend Collective exercise clothing.
Ethically manufactured activewear startup Girlfriend Collective garners customer loyalty by focusing on the bigger picture and making decisions based on their brand mission. — Girlfriend Collective

Why it matters:

  • Today, a brand represents more than just the things or services it sells, but the stances and the actions it takes as well.
  • In a highly fragmented and saturated buying marketplace, consumers have more options than ever and are looking to support brands that align with their values.
  • Businesses large and small are prioritizing purpose to help build and shape their respective communities and foster long-term customer loyalty.

Today’s values-driven consumers want to buy into more than just a product and a brand name. Living through an especially tumultuous time in history, many want to see that companies are working to making a positive impact on their communities and on their world at large — and not just on their own bottom line.

“A company’s purpose and impact are becoming the new driving force of the modern American economy,” said Kat Kornegay, chief purpose officer at Johnson & Sekin, a purpose-driven branding agency based out of Dallas.

And doing good is also good for business. “Purpose-driven companies have higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction,” she added, citing a 2019 study. And they are more likely to encourage customer loyalty: Indeed, 57% of consumers surveyed would be more likely to remain loyal to a brand that’s committed to addressing social inequities, for example, according to Deloitte’s 2022 Global Marketing Trends report.

Whatever a brand’s mission, the commitment to it should be seen as an investment in long-term customer relationships, not a generator of instant ROI. To understand how fashion brands are using purpose to drive loyalty, CO— spoke to three different companies with three very different strategies: Girlfriend Collective, an apparel brand dedicated to sustainability from the outset; direct-to-consumer accessories label STATE that has evolved its “buy one, give one” approach to support more impactful giving; and well-established player Kate Spade evolving its business model to resonate with a new generation of shoppers.

When purpose is at the heart of your brand, you orient yourself differently in terms of how you make decisions and why.

Taryn Bird, senior director, social impact, Kate Spade New York

Girlfriend Collective: Driving the sustainable fashion conversation ‘on a daily basis’

“Our purpose drives every decision we make, which is not easy on a daily basis,” said Fanny Damiette, chief marketing officer for sustainable activewear brand Girlfriend Collective.

Founded in 2016, the brand got its start with ethically manufactured activewear made from recycled plastic bottles. Since then, Girlfriend Collective has become a major player in the booming activewear and athleisure categories. Its growth, however, has been intentionally measured in the service of the brand mission.

“Understanding why we are in business and keeping our eye on the bigger picture is key in keeping our mission alive and our purpose real,” Damiette said. “This means making decisions that might put us at a disadvantage regarding our competitors, but we believe in making choices for the long term, not for short-term gains.” For example, developing proprietary recycled fabrics can take years compared to brands that buy off the shelf from a fabric mill.

According to Damiette, this position is an important part of why many customers come to the brand, decide they love the product, and why they stay loyal even if it means waiting between product drops. “We live in an abundant world where customers have a ton of choices, and as they get more access to information and knowledge, they also know that their everyday choices have consequences.”

“For our customers, our mission is front and center [and] it is an integral part of their loyalty to the brand, but it is not the only reason,” said Damiette. “It's important to us to not be one-dimensional and to talk to our customers in a holistic way.”

[Read: 5 Key Consumer Trends that Spell Opportunity for Businesses in 2022]

 Young kids wearing State Bags backpacks sitting in a gymnasium.
STATE co-founder Scot Tatelman explains how performing initiatives simply to help others, rather than just to gain brand recognition, helps attract customer loyalty. — State Bags

STATE: Pivoting from a ‘buy one, give one’ model to paying it forward where the need is greatest

Direct-to-consumer bag brand STATE started with a similar brand proposition made most famous by Toms shoes: For every bag purchased, the company gave one to children in need.

As the brand’s platform got bigger, it evolved its social impact strategy to reflect a more nuanced approach designed to help kids where they need it most. STATE has replaced the buy one, give one model and instead supports its charitable partners in the way they need it most, whether that includes donating stocked backpacks, hosting events or donating funds. Customers have stuck with them.

“The loyalty and trust that I aim to build is first with the kids, families and communities our initiatives are designed to support,” said co-founder Scot Tatelman. “When we successfully execute something truly impactful like our Virtual Tutoring Initiative, or a #WhatDoWeTellTheKids project and receive positive feedback from those it was meant to help, that proves to us it did the job, which leads to the understanding and belief from our customers that we don't carry out giving initiatives for recognition, but simply to help.”

“The most important element to incorporating purpose into operations is to set aside time to tap into your team's hearts,” Tatelman added. If you begin by identifying what drives your team emotionally, then your charitable efforts and initiatives will be just as thoughtful, planned out and effective as other crucial pieces of your business, such as marketing and financial plans, hiring and more.”

Johnson & Sekin’s Kornegay seconds the sentiment. “My advice for incorporating purpose into the operations of your business, regardless of company size or industry, is to begin small and start with your people,” she said.

[Toms shoes, for its part, has also pivoted from donating shoes to donating one-third of its profits to organizations promoting equity and social justice, mental health, education and ending gun violence.]

“Happy teams equal happy customers,” said Kornegay. "And with purpose at your core, every customer interaction will work to drive your brand and mission.”

[Read: The Toms Reboot: Shoe Disruptor Regains Its Footing by Taking Bold New Steps]

 Cynthia Germanotta (right), president and co-founder, and Aysha Mahmood, editor, both of the Born This Way Foundation, sitting down both holding a book.
Investing in women's health and empowerment initiatives, Kate Spade works with over 25 nonprofit partners, including the Born This Way Foundation. — Kate Spade

Kate Spade: A new dedication to purpose through the lens of women’s mental health

Kate Spade New York has been investing in women’s mental health and empowerment in a bid to turn the trendy accessories brand into an engine for social good, too. “When purpose is at the heart of your brand, you orient yourself differently in terms of how you make decisions and why,” Taryn Bird, the brand’s senior director, social impact, told CO—.

“’Welcoming with warmth’ is one of our core brand values, and it’s important to us that our social impact work also aligns with partners who share these values. It enables us to communicate a clear message to our customer that we are embarking on this work authentically, which is critical for building long-term loyalty.”

Kate Spade is reinforcing its commitment to women throughout the year, extending from customer-facing initiatives like marketing campaigns and product collections to internal employee resources and support. “A holistic approach is key, and it will take time to build,” says Bird.

Using its brand platform, the goal is to reach 100,000 women and girls by 2025 and provide mental health resources as well as help to reduce stigma around mental health issues. Kate Spade works with over 25 nonprofit partners, including The Trevor Project, Lower East Side Girls Club and the Born This Way Foundation.

This year, the brand launched the Social Impact Council, comprised of women’s empowerment and mental health leaders. With this council, Kate Space is looking to engage a wide audience via a series of in-person and digital events devoted to mental health issues.

“I think it's critical for a business to be clear on their objectives, and the unique impact that their business can make in the world,” Bird says. “You can then begin to think about how your value chain can be activated to align with your purpose.”

Bird emphasizes the importance of purpose as a journey, which can evolve and grow along with the business itself, its consumers, and the culture around them.

“There is always going to be more work to be done, and it's important to take calculated actions to be purpose-driven and start to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”

Kornegay offers more advice to emerging brands: “In everything you do, you should sit back and ask the question, ‘Is this authentic and true to our purpose?’ If the answer to that question is a clear yes, your purpose will be woven into all you do.”

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