NRF's Big Show: Creating Authentic Relationships Through Social Responsibility

NEW YORK—The new way to connect with customers isn't by helping them, but by helping others. NRF's Big Show put the limelight on two companies whose brand is linked with social causes, The Life Is Good Company and Toms.

The founder and CEO of The Life is Good Company, Bert Jacobs, struck slogan gold with "Life Is Good," which resonated with millions of optimists and turned a business that began by selling T-shirts out of a minivan into a $3 million company, then into a multimillion dollar company with brand extensions into greeting cards, coffee, and music festivals.

The company backs up its optimistic brand with its actions, giving 10 percent of its net profits to help kids in need. It's also on hand to respond dynamically to relevant events. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, which injured one of its employees, the Boston-based company created a "Boston Love" T-shirt. All the proceeds, which ended up reaching half a million dollars, went to help victims of the bombing.

These days, brands are often in search of authenticity, and Jacobs sees social responsibility as a means to that end. "Consumers aren't looking for perfection; they're looking for authenticity," Jacobs told retailers at the show. The Life Is Good Company can make mistakes, and consumers will still know its good intentions, he said. "At Life Is Good, we define branding as knowing who you are and acting like it," Jacobs said. "Authenticity is a superpower."

Many other companies have embraced social causes as well. Toms, which had a number of speakers at the conference, pioneered the one-for-one giving model, which has been picked up by other companies who created their own one-for-one products. To harness the outpouring of companies emulating the model, Toms created the Toms Marketplace, where selected do-gooding brands, most of them small, can sell their wares. The Marketplace is one tab on the Toms Web site, with the same shopping cart, enabling cross-pollination. After the Marketplace was introduced, the average order value increased 86 percent on the Toms Web site.

Jacobs encouraged other retailers to focus on becoming socially responsible as well. "If your organization doesn't have a social cause, you should get one," he said. BJ Bueno, the founder of The Cult Branding Company, noted that among people who found out about Kohls' participation in social causes, their affinity and affection for the brand increased. He advised simplicity in choosing a charitable cause. "Don't try to go too wide. Pick one or two things you want to be great at." Bueno also cautioned that picking or supporting a social cause that doesn't resonate with the broader culture or your customers can backfire. He offered the example of Chick-fil-A, which people boycotted after finding out about its opposition to gay marriage.

Jacobs ended his message with a brand lesson that works for many areas in an organization. "If you have complex ideas, they might reach hundreds. If you have more complex ideas, they might reach thousands. If the average person can understand them, the reach is limitless."

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