Featured image above of Bethany Mota by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Whether you’re a high-end, international fashion chain, or an independent designer and YouTube star, you can’t ignore the power of giving back to benefit your community, and your brand.
Two standout panels highlighted the ways that brands in fashion and entertainment are working to influence people and organizations for the better at the SXSW Style track of SXSW Interactive on Monday, March 16th. No longer satisfied with simply making money and giving some of it away for a good cause, the brands, designers, and personalities featured at SXSW Style are in search of deeper, more impactful ways to contribute, and they’re looking both to the power of authenticity, and the future of digital media to do it.
Beyond Charity: Integrating Giving Into a Brand’s DNA
The days of a brand saying “We’ll give 10% of our proceeds to charity” are over, according to Alia Ahmed-Yahia, style correspondent for ELLE, who participated in the “Fashion With a Conscience: Giving Back With Style” panel discussion. Joining Ahmed-Yahia in the panel were Founder and Creative Director of the Ashley Pittman Collection’s Ashley Pittman; Director of Charitable Giving at Neiman Marcus, Kevin Hurst; and Co-Founder and CPO of The Honest Company, Christopher Gavigan.
Pittman, who served as a volunteer with the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS initiative in Rwanda, agreed that it’s no longer enough to simply say “let’s take this profit and re-deploy it elsewhere.” Instead, the workshops in Kenya where her jewelry is manufactured are, indeed, treated as workshops and not factories; her artisan workers not just employees, but entrepreneurs learning valuable skills through their work. Through her jewelry line, Pittman seeks an organic mix of non-profit and for-profit values.
Gavigan also sees the benefit of incorporating a greater mentality of giving into the DNA of a for-profit enterprise. With Honest Company, and its all non-toxic household products, he even went so far as to have a customer service group that answers all questions pitched to them, from where to find Honest products, to why Honest uses a specific oil in their shampoo – “They’ll answer anything,” he said. In an age where the consumer has increasing power to voice their skepticism and displeasure with a brand, Gavigan aims for little less than pure authenticity when addressing consumer concerns.
Neiman Marcus is also interested in upping their social responsibility commitments – as Hurst said, they’re looking at the “long game.” No longer content with donating lump sums of money to schools, they plan to support students for multiple years at a time. He also recognized the benefit of not only evangelizing giving initiatives for promotional reasons, but to educate customers on philanthropic efforts in a way that lets them know “this is why we’re doing it.”
Above all, the panel remained convinced of the importance of authenticity in all their efforts, philanthropic or otherwise. “It’s really hard to know who’s telling the truth,” Pittman said. “So many brands say they’re doing the right thing, and it’s totally not true.”
Relationships and Influence With the New Stars of YouTube
An enlightening, albeit oddly programmed panel, “The Changing Face of Influence,” featured massive YouTube stars Bethany Mota and Tyler Oakley speaking on authenticity and how they built their personal brands, along with Baron Concords….Chief Digital Officer for Pizza Hut? (More on that at the end).
Mota, a multi-hyphenate fashion designer and media personality at just age 19, is already a major star, with over 8 million followers of her YouTube channel. She’s been on Dancing With the Stars, interviewed President Obama, and designs a fashion line in association with Aeropostale. Oakley, 25, with his own huge YouTube following (6.6 million), has branched into numerous other realms of entertainment and, this year, provided red carpet coverage of the Grammys for CBS.
Moderated by CEO and Founder of Made With Elastic, Moj Mahdara, the panel found Oakley and Mota each attributing their success to a fundamental “be yourself” approach found on their original YouTube content, and communicating constantly with their respective audiences. “My audience – they’re so inspirational, and that’s why I really love what I do,” Mota said.
Each also seemed keenly aware of the power of leveraging brands to further their success. Indeed, Oakley even offered the assessment that when it comes to techniques like native advertising on social media platforms, youth audiences don’t feel like it’s brand advertising, but rather, brand discovery. “If you get a brand deal, that’s something to be celebrated, not shunned,” he said.
Mota agreed, but also offered that the brand-talent relationship has to be a partnership built on authenticity and trust. “It’s about knowing what works [for her audience], and I think brands have to trust that,” she said, further explaining that her relationship Aeropostale would never have been successful if the company hadn’t given her the freedom to control her content, and also feature other brands on her YouTube channel. “What I’ve built up over the years is authenticity, and I wouldn’t risk that for one brand deal,” she said.
It’s hard to argue with the results of their labors, as Oakley and Mota are each dedicated to using their considerable influence for good. Oakley recently raised over $500,000 dollars for LGTBQ suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project, and Mota openly addresses her experiences with cyber-bullying on her YouTube channel.
With all the goodwill and star-power of Oakley and Mota in the 50-person conference room (and throngs of ready-to-scream teenage girls waiting for both outside), Concors’ contributions on pizza-ordering apps got a little lost in the conversation. He did, however, offer a helpful reminder of the power of one’s online following that even relationship masters like Mota and Oakley should remember. When it comes to managing audience expectations: “Whenever you think you are in charge, you’re probably in big trouble.”
Check back for more of the latest from SXSW Interactive in Austin!