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Storytelling Communications

Transparency as Disruptor in Retail Brand Storytelling

7 Minute Read

How we shop and what we expect from the brands we buy is changing. A whole new generation of consumers—yes, millennials—are demanding more than a designer label; they want ethical products and transparency. Not just in terms of the quality of the product but how it is made, sourced, and delivered.

Several retail brands are embracing this expectation and using it as a differentiator in their marketing strategy and brand storytelling. Clothing and accessories brands Everlane, Patagonia, and Oliver Cabell are revolutionizing the marketplace by being transparent and keeping that message consistent—from the factories where their clothes are made to their marketing, store aesthetic, and brand philosophy.

So, if the object of desire for this new consumer is a brand or product that aligns with their values and lifestyle, how can retail brands find authentic stories that connect to their ethos and the customer? How can these brands live up to their story of quality and transparency and meet customer expectations? And, more importantly, does transparency make for good storytelling?

Consumer Values are the Story

According to the 2015 Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, 72 percent of millennials said they were willing to pay more for products and services associated with companies committed to having a positive social and environmental impact. Enter the surge in brands using words like “sustainable” and “ethical” whenever they can.

All great stories have these elements: inciting incident; progressive complications; crisis, climax, and resolution. But what happens when a brand attempts to use transparency as a marketing tool to connect to their customer? When it comes to the retail brand experience, the customer is already living the story as soon as they walk into the store or start browsing on the website. They imagine wearing the item, how it makes them feel, and, by extension, what it means to be a billboard for that brand. The consumer is part of the story in a fundamental way.

Many of us remember the endless brands of the ’80s and ’90s: Nike, Ralph Lauren/Polo, DKNY, Versace, Levi’s, Benetton. Wearing these brands meant something to teenagers—it expressed a way of life, usually depicted in elaborate ad campaigns or stories of people on horseback, women in stilettos marching into a high-stakes boardroom or gala event. Whatever it was, the stage was set and somehow that story trickled down into paying fifty dollars for a t-shirt with the brand logo on it. It was shorthand for the story of the brand—I wear the brand, therefore I am an extension of this lifestyle. The consumers of yesteryear didn’t necessarily give much thought to where and how the clothes were made.

Times have changed and so has the story. Now the story is built around what the consumer values about the manufacturing process and the ethics behind it. Think of the shifting customer story this way: Your strap breaks on the crappy computer bag you bought at Big Name Department Store and you want a new leather bag (inciting incident). Your friend had this great bag she bought on her last trip to Italy, handmade by local artisans, but you don’t have time to go to Italy. Instead, you spend two hours online comparing similar bags and pricing (progressive complications). Yet, you can’t get your friend’s locally made bag out of your head. Now, you start to wonder about the quality of your purchase, if this is the best bag you can get for your money, if the bag was made ethically, and why is every bag made in China? (crisis). You decide there must be a better, simpler way: a way to know where the bag is from, that you are buying a quality product, and that you are supporting a company that shares your values. You decide to buy from a transparent brand (climax) and soon the ethically made bag arrives (resolution).

You Had Me at Fair Wages

Speaking on transparency pricing with the New York Times, Natalie Grillon, founder of Project JUST—a group that has made it their mission to inform consumers on ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry—explains, “We’ve lost the understanding of the value of the clothes we buy . . . Pricing transparency and stories behind the scenes help the shopper navigate the decision to pay for a more expensive product.”

When leather goods and accessories company Oliver Cabell gives a full price breakdown of the materials and cost of each piece, it’s so the consumer can make an educated decision. While founder Scott Gabrielson’s idea with the transparency pricing was to show shoppers how money could be saved by not having a brick-and-mortar storefront, the convincing is still left up to the product itself. Even with detailed information, the purchase is still based on pictures and information alone—a big ask since the company has no storefront locations and all products must be purchased online. Everything is fully manufactured in Italy and no low-wage factory worker situations are at play. Transparency is being used as a tool to convince the consumer, shifting the reasons to purchase from “it looks good” to “it’s doing good.”

Oliver Cabell Canvas Bag

Quality and Pricing

Patagonia has been around longer than the millennial generation and has been ahead of the curve when it comes to making sustainable products. From its re\\\collection apparel made from recycled fabric to the repair guides the brand provides its customers so they can extend the lifecycle of their clothing.

Tapping into this younger generation embracing sustainability and quality, Patagonia took to the road as part of its Worn Wear College Tour, visiting campuses and allowing students to bring any garments to be repaired.

Sustainability is baked into the brand storytelling of the company itself. As Yvon Choinard, Patagonia founder and owner, says in his memoir Let My People Go Surfing, We have to take responsibility for what we make, from birth to death and then beyond death, back to rebirth.”

Clothing company Everlane has been at the forefront of transparent pricing and production. By comparing the price of its clothes with that of traditional retailers, they lay bare the difference and where and why their prices may be higher—labor, materials, transporting the apparel, and duties. With the mission of “Our way: Exceptional quality. Ethical factories. Radical transparency,” the brand lives up to its charge—when you pick an item on their website, not only do you learn about where the product is made, but there is a link to the factory.

Everlane Dress

So what’s their story? It’s quality of product and quality of life for the workers who create it. They’ve even taken a new approach to their annual sale—rather than choosing one price, Everlane offered different price points and a full description of what they were getting at that price—a regular $140 shoe offered at the lowest price of $93 informed the shopper they were simply paying for production and shipping. Wiling to go up a notch? Great, that will cover production, shipping, and overhead.

It may not have the same appeal of Matthew McConaughey turning a tight corner in a Lincoln, but, this is not your grandfather’s branding. Think of this new brand storytelling as documentary: The behind-the-scenes is what these millennial consumers are buying, not the end product. If you want to be sure you are paying not just for quality but for a product that is made under the best possible situation, then, yes, that is kind of sexy.

There are a myriad of reasons for the rise in demand for transparency and accountability in brand storytelling—our world is more connected than ever, a photo or news story about a sweatshop or child labor can go viral in a nanosecond, the environment is in crisis mode, the list goes on. Coming of age during a recession and Occupy Wall Street, millennials are eyes-wide-open when it comes to marketing ploys, greenwashing, or cost-cutting that risks fair wages. Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise—as we have learned from great literature and film, all great stories have a universal truth at their heart.

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Featured image attribution: Lina Trochez

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Shannon’s love of reading, writing, and the arts has led to many career adventures. When posed with the question “What can you do with a degree in English?” she presents her career as Exhibit A: everything. From her first job as an editorial assistant at the Harvard Business Review to news text editor at Ford Motor Company, to marketing director for bestselling author and story authority Robert McKee’s international seminars, Shannon has honed a unique set of skills. Whether it’s planning an event, a press release, magazine profile, media campaign, newsletter or ad, synthesizing and sharing information effectively and thoughtfully is second nature. In between careers, she squeezed in an MA in Film Studies (University College Dublin, Ireland) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Virginia Commonwealth University). Shannon’s writing has appeared in Virginia Living, RHome Magazine, WORK Magazine, Style Weekly, the Detroit Metro Times, and other publications.

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