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At PacSun, Company Values Defined by Youth Culture

The retail company champions positive mental health, diversity and equality to authentically engage its young employee and consumer base.
PacSun Team on a Zoom call.
PacSun Team on a Zoom call. PacSun.
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For young consumers and employees alike, the drive to buy from and work for brands that align with their values is powerful. Last year, 92 percent of the Millennial and Gen-Z respondents to a BoF Survey agreed that businesses have a responsibility to address environmental and societal issues.

With its youth-oriented culture, California-based retail company PacSun continues to be connected to the concerns of its younger community. In a survey of nearly 10,000 Gen-Z consumers by Piper Jaffray in 2020 PacSun ranked in the top 5 clothing brands and shopping websites in the US.

The company has sought to foster a diverse and inclusive culture, with sixty percent of the company’s staff identifying as people of colour. Among the range of brands it represents, including Essentials Fear of God, Champion, The North Face, Brandy Melville and their own labels, PacSun projects they will generate over $125m for Black-owned brands in 2021, with an Independent Brands initiative to support smaller men’s, women’s and unisex labels by a diverse group of creatives by offering them the scale of PacSun’s retail and social media channels.

In October, PacSun announced a new philanthropic initiative: PacCares — a dedicated brand programme partnering with a network of organisations that represent the company’s core values of good mental health, diversity and equality. The company has committed donations to inaugural PacCares partners, including Born This Way Foundation, Girl Up and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

PacSun President Alfred Chang.

Alongside financial support for its values-led initiatives, PacSun has launched PacTalks — a bi-weekly Instagram Live series and forum for subjects that are top-of-mind for younger cohorts, such as voting, social media stress relief, mental health, diversity and inclusion. PacTalks has already featured the likes of actor Yara Shahidi, gun violence activist Naomi Wadler and model Cheikh Tall.

PacSun’s President Alfred Chang, who joined the company via the men’s merchandising team 15 years ago, tells BoF how the company fosters and supports its employees, and responded to the rapidly evolving workplace and community expectations in light of the turbulent events of 2020.

What epitomises the culture of PacSun and its staff?

Our culture wasn’t as solidified in the earlier years of PacSun. It was a retailer with a focus on selling product — that drove the energy throughout the building. But the business of being a brand is beyond that. Now, we are a lifestyle brand, and to become a lifestyle brand, you have to have a culture that reflects that. What’s inside the building and what we represent outside of the building must match. We have a culture that we’re proud of and evolves with our customer and PacSun community.

Our culture and staff are built on understanding and representing the consumer and what matters to them — we need to care about what they care about and that gives us the ability to stay relevant. It doesn’t reside in one person; it doesn’t reside in creating a department of relevance — it permeates throughout.

How do you share PacSun’s culture with your consumers?

Our culture is always changing and moving because that’s what our customers expect of us, not just in business but in how we operate as an organisation. Our staff in turn then expects PacSun to do the right thing in terms of what is important to the world and our customers.

For many brands and businesses, in the years prior to 2020, taking a stance on social injustice has required an internal decision or debate as to what that position might be and how it might look. I think 2020 has given us an opportunity to not only take a position, but demonstrated how our company culture has evolved to a point where it was not even a question mark about our stance — we had no need for debate.

Our culture is always changing and moving because that’s what our customers expect of us, not just in business but in how we operate as an organisation.

For example, after George Floyd’s death, we knew our customers and associates would want us to take a stance. And during the pandemic, we knew it was not just about selling our customers a bunch of sweatpants. The thinking goes beyond that. They are struggling with the mental health impact. So, what do we need to do and what content can we provide to stay connected?

If we are a lifestyle brand, we need to be that voice for them as well, so they could say, “That brand speaks to me.” So, we decided to do something like Pac Talks, bringing forward influencers, social activists and creatives to create content that goes beyond cute clothes.

What attributes do PacSun employees’ share?

In recent years, it has been a tough environment for retail and for brands, but that has also served us well. It has created an organisation that has a sense of urgency, that is constantly innovating, that has this entrepreneurial spirit.

And isn’t that what Gen-Z is as well? We are handing them a challenging world, but they have an optimistic outlook — they’re going to help the world and fix the environment; they are gender-free, gender-neutral; they are the 16-year-olds creating businesses with amazing success and innovation. I also think those are the attributes that our staff and associates house within the organisation.

How does PacSun foster inclusion and diversity internally?

I believe diversity is a part of our DNA. PacSun probably sits on the higher end of most benchmarks of what diversity looks like in an organisation, with 60 percent of our staff identifying as people of colour. I am proud of our diversity today, but we must also focus on areas where we have more opportunity, because it can be better. For example, Black and African Americans associates are still underrepresented in our organisation, and we don’t have the same percentage of diversity in the higher ranks of our company. Those are two opportunities we have seen.

I am proud of our diversity, but we must also focus on areas where we have more opportunity, because it can be better.

But what 2020 has shown us all is that we need to stop talking about it and focus on what actual changes we can implement to address that. It’s not about hiring a top executive for diversity and inclusion — it’s everyday behaviours as relates to your recruitment, it’s everyday behavioural changes and opportunities in terms of, how we develop talent internally to make sure that we make some change against those two opportunities.

How does PacSun develop talent within the company?

We develop them on an apprenticeship model — it’s about learning on the job. It is not just spent getting tasks done — it’s about learning the culture and what makes PacSun and its associates special. I joined PacSun 15 years ago and I was able to learn through leaders — including their failures. That’s helped to shape me and build upon my natural skillsets. I am proud of the culture and the brand we have built here, but I am most proud that it is a result of leaders and talent that have been homegrown.

Our teams need to also understand how we take the vision of our brand partners’ and their creatives and consider how they want to create a product, then match that to our own business objectives. Our team has to be able to understand how to make the two fit, to get that project or brand to work for our community.

What does 2021 have in store for the company and what skills are needed to drive its growth?

I believe, at PacSun, our brand positioning is solid. If you look at the Piper Jaffray report, we’re ranked so high, we’re top of mind among the likes of Nike, American Eagle, Adidas. PacSun is in the top five of that market share. That’s the position the team has earned and worked so hard to achieve.

So, 2021 will be about doubling down on what we are about, what our positioning is. It has momentum. So, as we look at the skillsets needed going forward, it is about continuing to be hyperfocused on our consumer, evolving with them and how we can continue to scale this brand.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by PacSun as part of a BoF Careers partnership.

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