In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent explosion of Black Lives Matter protests all around the world, an independent bookstore did a dumb thing. Tattered Cover, long-time sanctuary for book lovers and a bona fide Denver institution, made a statement about how they wouldn’t make a statement.
So why have we been quiet?
First, we think this is a time for voices other than ours to be heard. As a white-owned business, with a predominantly white staff, we feel this is a time for us to take a step back, to allow others to command more and greater attention.
More significant, though, is our nearly 50-year policy of not engaging in public debate. For Tattered Cover to shout this from the rooftops, to drape our spaces with banners proclaiming these simple and unalterable truths, would be anathema to a different principle that we also hold dear, and one that is central, we believe, to the role of an independent bookstore.
Our value to the community is to provide a place where access to ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, can happen in an uninhibited way. It’s not for us to determine which ideas in the pages on our shelves are valid and which are not. We leave that to you, our readers.An excerpt from Tattered Cover’s problematic statement
The internet promptly exploded.
There was plenty of backlash, lots of it reactionary on Twitter, and some real damage was dealt to the TC brand. Being a Denverite myself (and a big fan of Tattered Cover’s cozy stores), I found this debacle to be fascinating. As difficult as it is to be a successful independent bookstore in the age of Amazon, why in the world would these owners shoot themselves in the foot by essentially saying they’ll be assuming the role of WWII Sweden in what may have been the biggest cultural movement in American history?
For most people, the BLM movement wasn’t exactly controversial. Without getting too deep in the weeds here, it was a movement about a historically mistreated population gaining the respect they deserve. Great, so why didn’t Tattered Cover want to weigh in?
Speaking out for equality in one of America’s most liberal cities isn’t exactly controversial. And their job, as a bookstore, is literally to recommend books that they think are good, which they do with all kinds of “Staff Recommends” cards scattered throughout their stores. Why should their opinion stop at which books are worth a read?
Their excuse for sitting this one out, per their statement, was that bookstores should be places for free thought. Yes, couldn’t agree more, but does free thought mean you as a company don’t take a side?
Your brand probably isn’t an independent bookstore. As mentioned above, 2021 isn’t an awesome time to be one of those, but it is a great time to have an opinion. I’m someone who’s never had a problem having opinions (you’re reading some right now!), and occasionally it’s gotten me into trouble. Yes, sometimes shutting up and keeping those opinions inside is a good idea, but I’m here today to tell you that your brand can’t do that. Hell, I’d argue that you as a person shouldn’t do that either (apathy is the mind killer), but for now I’ll stick to your brand.
Why does your brand exist? It’s the fundamental question for every marketer who’s ever lived, and the first one that a company needs to answer. That part has never changed, and companies have had missions intimately tied to their brand for as long as brands have existed. But as millennials have come of age (and now comprise a majority of the world’s population), they brought with them a certain idea that brands should stand for something.
You make shoes, but why do you make shoes? Why are yours better than the other guy’s, and why should anyone care? Take Toms, for instance. They hit it big with their simple shoe designs in the early aughts, and every story about them was accompanied by mention of their One for One campaign, in which they donated a pair of shoes to some poverty-stricken place for every pair they sold.
As millennials have come of age, they brought with them a certain idea that brands should stand for something.
Evidently Toms ended that campaign in 2019, but the impact remained. Warby Parker adopted a similar model with their glasses, and in the case of both brands these campaigns gave them something to talk about beyond your typical marketing. They make good products, people like them, and also some kid in Ethiopia can now see clearly for the first time ever because you bought some glasses with Warby Parker.
Boom! Impact made, customer impressed. Guess where they’re going the next time they need some new glasses?
According to one study, 83% of millennials want brands to align with their values. And Gen Z, who’s reaching adulthood by the way, is perhaps even more socially minded. These are generations who, for the most part, were hit with the triple whammy of 9/11, the Great Recession, and COVID-19 – and that’s not to mention that it will be up to them to do something about coping with the worst effects of global warming.
While politics can be an infuriating place to hope for change, Americans have learned that they can at least hold their brands to certain ideals. Call it a twisting of capitalism, but companies are typically far more interested in getting things done if it makes their customers more loyal.
Take, for instance, Dominos. They make pizza, maybe you’ve heard of them? In 2018, they made it their mission to pave potholes in battered streets all around the country. If you’re scratching your head looking for the connection between potholes and pizza, you’re not alone.
On their site, they even built a cool video to show you the effect that progressively-worse potholes have on your pizza as it’s being delivered to you. The effect is instantaneous: No one likes wrecked pizza showing up at your doorstep, and we can all agree that potholes are bad, whether pizzas are involved or not.
There’s a cynical read on this situation, of course, which is that roads are maintained by cities and those cities should be the ones filling potholes, not a publicly-traded pizza company. But hey, Dominos saw an opportunity and they (excuse the pun) filled it. They’ve gotten a lot of press for this and, because it takes about no reason to convince someone to order pizza (you probably want one right now), they’ve probably also gotten a lot of business from it.
Toms, Warby Parker, and Dominos have all made their brand missions very practical, even if the practicality doesn’t initially have much of a connection to their product. And that’s the thing about a brand mission – it doesn’t have to directly correlate to your brand. Sure, it’s nice when it all makes sense and you don’t have to waste precious copy space to explain the connection, but remember that 83% of millennials want you to align with their values. If you’re a bookstore who hates racism, no one is going to ask why that’s the stance you’re taking, they’re just going to like that you’re standing for something. Racism, after all, is not cool, just as we can all agree that potholes suck and that not having shoes or glasses is mighty inconvenient.
Patagonia has never been shy about their mission. “Activism” is even one of the top headers on their website, right next to “Shop.” They’re perhaps the most visible example of a company walking the walk and making their mission core to everything they do. Their products are notoriously expensive and they have a great niche that’s in no danger of shrinking anytime soon, so they’re also privileged enough to be able to put real money toward fulfilling their mission of climate activism.
Peak Design is a photography bag company who helped create a whole alliance of brands devoted to saving our planet (which Patagonia also happens to be a part of). While it goes without saying that Patagonia, creator of outdoor gear, has a great passion for saving nature, it’s maybe a bit less direct for Peak Design. Their audience is photographers, some of whom might just make a living from shooting weddings on the weekend, and yet Peak Design has made it core to their brand to save the planet.
This is a big, lofty goal. We hear constantly about how f-ed we probably are in relation to global warming, so what can Peak Design or Patagonia do to save us from our ever-hotter environs? In a way, the massiveness of it is their point. Everyone, including companies, need to do everything in their power in order to tackle this humongous problem. So while buying a bag from Peak Design won’t necessarily save deforestation from happening in Brazil, you can do so knowing that you at least helped, and Peak Design can let you know your impact in follow-up marketing that doesn’t just focus on how cool their bags are.
The Other Guys
Then we have the other guys, the ones whose mission isn’t quite so obvious or admirable.
One of Google’s founding clauses in its Code of Conduct was “Don’t be evil,” which isn’t quite a mission statement but is a funny way to say exactly what the above companies are all saying with more specificity – that they want to make the world a better place than they found it. It sent a pretty foreboding message, then, when Google removed that clause in 2018.
Because outside of not being evil, what do they stand for? Making money? Or how about Facebook, to use another one of the dreaded FAANG superpowers. There are countless stories of Facebook undermining democracy and putting a gigantic wrench in journalism, and outside of removing violent or sexual content from their platform, Facebook hasn’t taken too many actual stances against anything. Maybe they too are trying too hard to be a champion of free speech in all the wrong ways.
I’ve written previously about Apple’s crusade for digital privacy, but for the most part it seems like the bigger the company gets, the less visibly it stands for a single cause. And that’s a shame, because these huge corporations are the companies who can make real change, and they’re the ones with gobs of lobbying money.
As global warming continues to worsen, the line between a cause-oriented brand and a money-oriented brand will become more blurry. When the world’s problems are highlighted, people want to know that they’re not only buying a great product but simultaneously supporting a cause they believe in.
That cause should be so essential to your brand’s identity that it’s basically synonymous with your brand name. It doesn’t have to be a hard line on a hot topic like BLM, but sitting out isn’t really an option anymore. Take a stand on something that makes the world better, and maybe your brand will fare better too.