The political stance, a new paradigm in fashion?
Emerging over the last decade, brand activism has become an unavoidable theme since the beginning of the decade and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Previously, the vast majority of brands did not make political commitments and aimed for consensus. At most, they occasionally associated themselves with a social slogan or a responsible initiative. Since the mid-2010s, however, these commitments have begun to assert themselves, responding in particular to the expectations of some American consumers.
On the occasion of the Fashion Reboot event, organized in Paris last Thursday by the French Institute of Fashion, Caroline Ardelet and Benjamin Simmenauer presented their work, carried out with the IAE of the University of Paris 1, on the subject of the concretization of activism in fashion. The two professors of the training institute started by pointing out a series of personalities affirming, during public events, their political position or their commitment to a cause, through their clothing.
"These stars expose themselves to controversy, or even rejection by part of their fans or audience. It's risky but it allows them to stand out from the crowd and create a specific relationship. According to studies, consumers want to consume in a way that is consistent with their values. Just like celebrities, consumers will make clothing choices that align with their beliefs and values. We had the feeling that the politicization of fashion, which was very strong in the 80s and 90s, was coming back in a new way. We wanted to know more by taking a rigorous and scientific approach".
Indeed, since 2020, consumers' expectations are very clear: many of them expect brands to be commited. An international study by Ipsos indicates that in 2021, more than two thirds of Americans, but also 60% of British and French consumers, said they would be more likely to buy a brand that shares their values. In 2013, this was the case for only half of Americans, against 43% of the British and 44% of the French. And the trend is not about to fade. According to the Roland Berger consulting institute, which at the end of 2021 asked a panel of 2,000 consumers the question: "How important is it to you that brands take a stand on societal issues?", 61% of 26-40 year olds and 63% of 19-25 year olds believed that these issues were important or even very important.
With the recent political crises and the incredible growth of political exchanges on social networks where everyone can publicly express their values, we are not only looking for aligned brands but we are going to challenge them to support causes. And we see that statements without commitment or action are no longer enough," says Simmenauer.
With this in mind, many brands are wondering how to move forward on this subject, especially on the choice of a cause and how to associate the label with it.
"What do brands need to do to meet this new political need? In fact, they face contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, consumers seem to be asking brands to commit to social issues. On the other hand, there is a fear of giving the impression that they are trying to manipulate or use the issue in an opportunistic and cynical way. We said to ourselves that we would try to help brands that want to get involved and don't know how to do it," says Ardelet.
In order to try to give some insight to brands, the two academics have worked on a project involving clothing with a message.
The most important factor for a fashion brand is the style. "What remains decisive is the relationship to the physical appearance. Then, consumers create a connection with the brand that gives them the opportunity to express themselves and to engage on a controversial subject. There are a lot of studies that show that this connection leads to purchase intent. Ultimately, the more risk-taking the brand becomes by becoming an activist, the more it intensifies the relationship with those consumers."
Hot or cold news: different strategies
Last April, the researchers conducted a case study with 184 women, fashion consumers, aged 32 on average. Ardelet and Simmenauer offered them four T-shirts from a fictitious brand called Mode. "We had two subjects. One on hot news, the war in Ukraine and support for refugees, the other on a social topic, women's protection. For each subject, there was a T-shirt with a message or a white T-shirt but associated with the cause through a statement on the website or social networks."
For the message t-shirts, the statements were the same with "Stop Violence against Refugees" or "Stop Violence against Women". The T-shirts were identical in every way. And yet between the four different models, the researchers note great differences.
"Depending on the message and whether it is written on the T-shirt or only written on an online post, the reactions are very different. In our opinion, T-shirts with a message are a support for the controversial topics of the moment. However, there is no desire to wear a T-shirt with a message supporting a cause that is not highly topical. In our experiment, it was prefered to engage on social networks. When a brand does not offer a T-shirt with a message but opts for a more discreet commitment through its social networks or on its website, it gives the impression that the brand believes in the cause. Its customers will identify it as a true commitment rather than an opportunistic or cynical commercial stunt", the two researchers detail.
These are the first elements that other case studies, on different product categories, should soon reinforce, but which should largely help brands to define their strategy in the choice of the causes they wish to associate themselves with.
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