In this VIBExposé, we tell you why being inclusive has become imperative today and we share a few steps to do it right.

By now, you should all have heard about the two latest controversies that shook the Fashion World: the backlash following the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show with the related VOGUE interview of two VS’s executives ; and the outrage caused in China by Dolce & Gabbana’s social media campaign. It costed Victoria’s Secret its CEO – ex-Spanx Jan Singer – who resigned after only two years with the company. For Dolce & Gabbana, the consequences are dramatic as the Italian label is getting kicked out of the most strategic country for luxury goods. Although Dolce & Gabbana and Victoria’s Secret do not share the same positioning, they have both missed the mark by publicly being culturally insensitive and resistant to Inclusivity.

All recent studies have been urging companies to embrace the change led by consumers who now require brands to take a stand on cultural and political issues. For any company, it is clearly becoming more than just having strong core values; it is about staying relevant and keeping their competitive advantage.

When Dolce & Gabbana created a specific social media campaign for the Chinese market, they followed what Bain & Company reported in their latest Luxury Market Study about the need for brands to speak directly to different groups and cultures. However, the marketing execution was so poor it led to one of the worst crisis the luxury label will ever have to face.

Victoria’s Secret, on the other hand, seems to believe they can turn a blind eye to who their real consumer is and dictate the world the kind of fantasy it needs. Declining sales and fierce backlash might force them to review their strategy in order to keep their dominant position in their industry.

Inclusivity and Diversity. In a world where self-acceptance is now celebrated and women are finally encouraged to express their singularity, it feels outdated, disrespectful, and irresponsible for a major brand like Victoria’s Secret to be that disconnected from reality and for an international luxury label like Dolce & Gabbana to be that clueless as to how to address another culture. Moreover, Diversity is not a new concept. Consumers have been putting companies under pressure to lead the way in embracing people of all races, cultures, abilities, religions, opinions, gender identities for many years now. But let’s make one thing clear: being diverse does not mean you are being inclusive too. Inclusivity requires more work and commitment: it is about how you value and embrace Diversity as a whole. In other words: how do you make sure every single person in a diverse group of people is included as well as considered, respected and treated equally? As Inclusivity is joining Diversity and Sustainability as a new norm, we encourage every company to review their commitment and the way they deliver it to the public accordingly.

1. Be authentic in incorporating Inclusivity in the DNA of your brand.

Authenticity at the highest level is key. Rihanna, who is building an empire with Fenty Beauty and more recently her Savage X Fenty lingerie line, says it best: « I approach everything with the same mentality. It has to be authentic, it has to be from me, my perspective. I’ve wanted to do a lingerie line for a long time, but it was important to me it be done right. To push past the boundaries associated with lingerie and encourage women to embrace their uniqueness. Everyone should feel good wearing lingerie. » (The Guardian).

Authenticity is obvious in brands founded by people who used their personal experiences as foundations. For the two founders of Universal Standard who have different body types, shopping together triggered frustration. Eventually, they created a brand that offers the same fashion styles to women size 00 to 40. It is as much about Inclusivity as it is about Equality: Universal Standard is giving every woman the right to get a great product with a great fit regardless of her size.

Empowering women through Inclusivity is certainly a mission they share with Sara Blakely. The Spanx founder’s voice on Inclusivity goes from offering an extended range of sizes and shades to supporting all kinds of women entrepreneurs. Building consistency around all activities within a company is the right way to continue spreading authenticity.

Taking into consideration Edelman’s Earned Brand Study which estimates that 2/3 of consumers around the world are belief-driven buyers and thus take into account a company’s stance when purchasing, we can only applaud the current and future success of Spanx, Savage X Fenty, and Universal Standard that chose to integrate Inclusivity from the start.

As for Victoria’s Secret, they would have a hard time keeping up with today’s changes if they wanted to. Their branding is based on total opposite values with current concerns (sexy and fantasy vs. body empowerment and reality). Inclusivity has just never been part of their vision and mission. However, we strongly believe brands can still grow into being more inclusive in their message and offer. Collaborations could be a way to go. Do not touch the « Angel fantasy » which is the pillar of the brand, but offer an alternative. Their recent collaboration with fashion designer Mary Katrantzou (best known for her colorful prints) on their 2018 Fashion Show would have been the perfect opportunity.

2. When it comes to Inclusivity, lead by example or suffer consequences.

Dolce & Gabbana just became the last example of poor marketing judgment causing catastrophic business repercussions. The promotional videos for their now cancelled Fashion Show in China were deemed racist and sexist in the country, leading to major backlash. Although Dolce & Gabbana tried to apologize to the Chinese people, several big Chinese retailers had already announced they were dropping the luxury label.

Unfortunately, that marketing debacle is typical of way too many companies still not being a model of Inclusivity. It seems none of them remembers the uproar surrounding Abercrombie and Fitch’s « policy » of excluding sizes larger than 10 (or a Large) back in 2013 or the more recent controversy around H&M showing a black child modeling a « monkey in the jungle » sweatshirt.

So how can situations like these be avoided? Start by having a clear Human Resources strategy promoting Inclusivity and Diversity at all levels of the company. Then dedicate as many resources as you can to that matter. H&M and Macy’s recently created Head of Inclusion and Diversity positions for North America. They appointed two women who will work on finding creative ways to facilitate Inclusion and Diversity and ensure their companies are on top of it in all departments.

Why is a diverse and inclusive team an asset? In addition to greater creativity, it gives a company internal checks and balances on how a message will be received by different groups and cultures; thus, keeping the company at bay from stereotypes and cultural bias. In Dolce & Gabbana’s case, it seems unlikely the series of videos went through a firewall of representatives of the Chinese culture. We can only assume they would have provided guidelines on how to achieve that humorous twist the luxury label was obviously aiming for while respecting the Chinese culture.

3. Know your audience!

Marketing 101: know your customer. Victoria’s Secret CMO Ed Razek’s insensitive comment in the VOGUE interview, implying transgenders are not measuring up to Victoria’s Secret beauty standards shows he has totally lost touch with his own company’s reality. Transwomen are clients of Victoria’s Secret and have been for decades.

For a brand to focus on its core target to develop products, messages and aspirational images is classic marketing. To forget that your core target is a brand fantasy and to publicly alienate a group actually buying into your brand are major mistakes. As a company executive, you must speak with your in-store staff on a regular basis. They are the ones who know who your customers are in all their diversity, as they deal with them everyday. Sales teams also provide valuable feedback on how your customer base evolves; therefore giving the company the most useful guidelines to adapt to consumer demand and needs, and stay relevant.

Involving the Sales teams at the front line with your customers is key to pursuing Inclusivity,  as well as asking people who do know about a culture/sub-culture you are interested in (whether those are generational, related to a lifestyle etc…). That is a major faux-pas to assume you are familiar with all kinds of cultures and will get it right the first time around.

4. Celebrate Inclusivity in your marketing and communication campaigns.

One of the best reactions we have seen lately was to Aerie’s « Aerie bras make you feel real good » campaign. The American lingerie and intimate apparel brand is a longtime advocate of body positivism and pledged to stop retouching photos in 2014. Over the summer, the brand took a step forward into showing the world its commitment to Inclusivity when 52 real women with different body types, skin colors, ages, some with disabilities or medical conditions, were casted to promote the products. We were inspired by this communication choice for three reasons:

First, as for Sustainability, companies have to communicate clearly on Inclusivity to inform and educate their customers on how important it is to the brand, the global Fashion Industry and the community.

Second, when talking about body positivism, we believe a picture is worth a thousand words. Social media compel brands to deliver strong visual messages to connect and engage with their customers, and build credibility around their core values. Aerie’s images gained an overwhelmingly positive response with social media users shocked to see themselves represented for the first time. We can only imagine how many new potential customers they  instantly got.

Finally, Aerie and many newcomers such as Lively and ThirdLove, understood a very important point that a lot of ex Victoria’s Secret shoppers tried to bring up many times: consumers should not try to fit into a brand, that brand should offer options to choose from that are adapted to them. The combination of powerful visuals and a punchy tagline as Aerie’s « Don’t change you, change your bra! » surely delivers that statement to the audience at large, hence maximizing the potential number of sales.

5. Build a strong inclusive in-store experience.

As far as Retail is concerned, we agree with our fellow Fashion insiders that brick-and-mortar is not dying anytime soon. But with consumers pushing for a new model, physical retail sure has to evolve quickly. What are the main changes you can operate to offer a better, more inclusive experience throughout your stores?

First, Merchandising. It might be very frustrating for a customer to have to go all the way to the back of the rack to find the larger size she is looking for. She might feel embarrassed to see all the smaller products at the front, falling off the rack in the process. Maybe she does not feel comfortable asking for help to find her size. Or she might just consider your brand does not carry her size since it is not displayed for her to see. As an interesting illustration, Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty pop-up store in SoHo, NYC, chose to present all sizes on the floor, displayed from the side or side by side, thus making it as easy for a larger consumer or a smaller consumer to find her size. Everyone got the same shopping experience.

Then, it seems obvious but work on hiring a diverse and inclusive Sales team. Offer them training on a regular basis. You want all types of customers to feel respected and accepted by the brand as soon as they make their first connection  with your Sales associates. Nordstrom for Men in NYC is a great example. Customers know they belong form the moment they enter the store and feel at ease to shop as they see themselves represented.

Inclusivity as the new norm. According to the NPD Group, Generation Z will account for 40% of all consumers in 2020. When we know how sensitive they are about political and cultural issues, that should be enough information for companies to incorporate Inclusivity into their business model. It is not yet another trend about how good it looks to care about humanity and dignity. The challenge is as much about building a strong and genuine business around these values as it is about avoiding the « surfing the Inclusivity wave » at all cost. Millennials and Generation Z are not easily duped on authenticity and might ditch your brand in a second if they do not feel a real connection. Your job as a responsible company is to lead the way in giving every person the equal right to choose you. Throw Technology and Sustainability into the mix and you might be on the right path to long term success.

Emilie & Tiffany

Photo credits (from left to right, top to bottom): Dolce and Gabbana Instagram, H&M Pride Out Loud campaign, Savage x Fenty Vikram Valluri/BFA/Shutterstock, H&M Unisex Collection, Universal Standard, Aerie, H&M, Aerie, Victoria’s Secret Getty Images.