Community and causes: Highlights from the Fast Company Innovation Festival

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.

Experiences that attract young customers, engaging with the community and taking a stance on social issues were the major topics of conversation at this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival.

Speaking at the conference, brand experts highlighted the growing importance of listening to their consumers, and reflecting their lifestyles and values.

Shopping as an experience

“Experience today is a younger generation’s currency,” said Daniella Vitale, CEO of Barneys New York. “They’re less motivated by money and more motivated by an authentic experience.” At a panel about the company’s strategy for reaching young customers, Vitale mentioned the success of “The Drop”, an elaborate, experiential program that involved a retail model inspired by streetwear, as well as parties and workshops. “We were willing to forfeit profitability and sales for an incredible experience.”

Vitale stressed, however, that the program ended up generating a huge return on their investment by converting visitors to repeat customers while retaining the ones they already had. ”The Drop is way beyond merchandising. It’s about working with large-scale brands on creating exclusive projects.”

Companies as communities

Tina Sharkey, CEO of FMCG startup company Brandless, says the company thinks of itself less as a company and more like a community, which includes constant communication with its customer base.

Social networks are its go-to channel for those conversations. “We are constantly asking what do they think, what we can do better, what they are looking for?” Sharkey said. “People want to answer these questions because people want to be seen. It amazes me that direct-to-consumer companies think of [social media] as a channel as opposed to a direct relationship.”

For Sharkey, the brand becomes a platform for customers to be heard and for products to tell their own stories. For instance, Brandless does weekly Facebook Live events with its buyers so that customers can ask questions in real time. “Companies shouldn’t be creating false narratives around the products. The products need to be able to speak for themselves. Therefore the quality of the product is foundational.”

Brands weighing in on activism

For Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co, countries are so politically divided at the moment that CEOs have a great obligation to weigh in on causes. Recently, the company pledged $1M to gun control organizations, as well as signed a letter asking Congress to pass the bipartisan Dream Act. It has also also teamed up with over 200 brands, including Patagonia, in the “Time to Vote” campaign, which grants employees time off to vote.

Levi’s isn’t afraid of losing customers, Bergh said. “When we took action on gun control, I got lots of emails of people saying they would stop buying Levi’s, but I also got thousands of other ones from people saying they would buy even more from us.” The risk seems to be paying off, however. “We’ve had four quarters of double-digit roll growth. That’s on top of last year’s 8% growth. So our business results are actually accelerating.”

Bergh also said that becoming political was never an issue for the talent the company works with. “Having the courage to stand up and take a stand has always been a part of our lifeblood, and it’s who we are. And our employees expect it.”

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