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How Fashion Can Navigate 2020’s Political Minefield

For fashion brands with a global customer base, it's getting harder to stay neutral in the face of flashpoints like the Hong Kong protests and the US presidential election. Here's what to do.
President Donald Trump was defeated in the Nov. 3 election | Source: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
  • Sarah Kent,
  • Zoe Suen

LONDON, United Kingdom — In 2019, fashion got woke. In 2020, it needs to get political.

The industry is still reeling from a year of missteps, as brands struggled to tap into the zeitgeist with inclusive slogans and values-based marketing. But successfully navigating the global culture wars is shaping up to be even trickier in 2020, as fashion finds itself caught in the middle of an increasingly fraught political environment.

Brands are staring down a divisive election year in the US, ongoing protests in Hong Kong and mounting tensions in the Middle East. A deadly coronavirus outbreak has set governments on high alert, while apocalyptic scenes of wildfires in Australia have hammered home the catastrophic potential impact of climate change.

There are opportunities amid the chaos; a special-edition hoodie that Balenciaga quickly rolled out to raise money for Australia has sold out online, even as some critics panned the company for pushing new products tied to a disaster linked to climate change.

But when the cause isn’t as universal as the environment, brands get wrapped up in global events at their own peril. Not that they always have a choice — the days when the fashion industry was avowedly apolitical are long gone. Consumers now demand that brands take a stand, and are quick to criticise when their favourite labels miss the mark.

In other words, fashion can’t just lay low and hope consumers keep spending, even as the world burns.

“We’ve seen these easy wins that allow brands to show they’ve latched onto a value,” said Ben Barry, chair of fashion and associate professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson University in Toronto. The challenge for brands is that "as consumers become much more savvy and sceptical and educated, they look for a deeper commitment to these values.”

Risks and Rewards

In the last year alone, a host of brands and influencers found themselves on the wrong side of vocal consumer politics.

High-end fitness brands SoulCycle and Equinox faced boycotts after it emerged over the summer that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a fundraiser for Donald Trump. Association with the US President proved similarly toxic for LVMH. Japanese retailer Uniqlo cut its outlook for the year earlier in January, after taking a hit on protests in Hong Kong and a South Korean consumer boycott worsened by a controversially subtitled TV ad. And just before Christmas, a host of celebrities and influencers were lambasted online for acting as partners and brand ambassadors for a festival organised by Saudi Arabia's entertainment authority.

Successfully navigating the global culture wars is shaping up to be even trickier in 2020.

The online vitriol created by these politically-charged moments rarely affect sales for long, if at all. They can put a brand on notice, however, that their image is out of step with their customers’ values. On the flip-side, there is an upside to engaging with consumers’ political beliefs.

“The brands that will succeed now are brands that make a stand,” said Gachoucha Kretz, affiliate professor of marketing at HEC Paris, an international business school. “You’ll probably lose a lot of customers, but the ones you keep are more loyal and willing to help you develop and pay premium prices.”

The call can be easy, at least in retrospect. Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback-turned-Nike-endorser was a controversy magnet for his protests of racial injustice, but only one side of that debate counted among the shoe brand's core customers.

But it’s rare for a brand’s sales to fall so neatly along political lines.

Take Saudi Arabia: the country’s policies are undoubtedly at odds with values held by most western consumers, particularly the young, woke audience most fashion brands are targeting. Yet, its apparel market is worth $15 billion, on par with Australia, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.

Perhaps the biggest flashpoint of all is China. The country’s apparel market is the biggest in the world, with an estimated value of over $330 billion, according to Euromonitor. But it presents an increasingly challenging political landscape for brands and retailers.

The trade war between the US and China, the world's two biggest economies, creates risks for brands too closely associated with either country. Meanwhile, the Chinese government's treatment of ethnic minorities and political dissidents in Hong Kong put brands in a bind. Speaking out could trigger boycotts in the fast-growing market, while silence can lead to calls of hypocrisy in the west.

Most brands try to play both sides. But as the politics of fashion become more complex and convoluted — and President Donald Trump potentially makes anti-China sentiment a key part of his re-election campaign — the industry should be prepared for financial trade-offs.

Perhaps the biggest flashpoint of all is China.

“I would only imagine that it’s going to get tougher,” said Acorn Digital’s Vice President of Growth Elijah Whaley. “Nobody stateside likes China right now. Who knows what Trump will come up with as he starts to campaign.”

Be Real

The best way to avoid the above traps is to start building trust with customers well before a geopolitical crisis presses the issue.

Outdoors brand Patagonia has long championed the environment, so its campaigns around climate issues (and rejection of events like Black Friday) resonate with its customers.

One way to navigate fashion’s increasingly tricky political waters is to stick to broad values that resonate with individual brands’ global customer base and can be marketed at a local level. Equally, they can be adapted so as not to impose values on a culture that doesn’t share them.

Acorn Digital’s Whaley flagged beauty brand Shiseido as a company tackling the issues in a smart way. Shiseido focuses on subjects like women’s issues that translate across borders without becoming controversial. The brand has a long history of promoting diversity and inclusivity, having introduced a maternity leave and child care program in 1990 (well before relevant laws were enforced in its native Japan). The beauty giant has released ads featuring same-sex couples and gender-fluid subjects, many of which have gone viral and received local advertising awards.

“You don’t have to speak to anything related to someone’s nation or something sensitive like that,” Whaley said. “There’s a lot of safety in [other] areas, you just have to make sure that it speaks to people everywhere.”

Be Humble

For brands getting political, it’s increasingly important to understand where their lane is, and to stay in it. That may mean creating a hierarchy of values, allowing brands to focus on the areas that are most relevant to them, and where they can have the most impact.

The brands that will succeed now are brands that make a stand.

“The business reality is that you can’t address all the projects at the same time,” said HEC Paris’ Kretz. “The way brands can avoid attacks is to focus with actions on what’s really urgent, and have a communication crisis safety net for the less urgent matters.”

Crucially, as brands tackle global consumers and contend with tricky political dynamics they have to get smarter about local cultural nuances. Ahead of the holidays, Acorn Digital’s Whaley was approached by a client hoping to tap into the Chinese market over Christmas. The client wanted to use the phrase Happy Holidays to avoid causing any offence, but the concept has no context or meaning in China.

“They’re doing reverse cultural political correctness that doesn’t make sense over here,” Whaley said. Ultimately, hiring a local team or advisor and building a synergies between offices can stop a marketing message from becoming lost in translation and avoid the risk of cultural colonialism.

Ultimately though, if brands really want to be credible when it comes to advocating on values, they have to be willing to take the risk to put principle over profit.

“The challenge for brands is when the foundation of your business is to maximise value to shareholders, holding true to those values requires a real restructuring,” “said Ryerson’s Barry. “Even if the end result is long-term, lasting business viability, that short-term risk goes against the main measure that brands are judged upon.”

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