Taking Business to Heart
By Meghan Termat
“An Update from our CEO Regarding COVID-19…”
It’s a ubiquitous subject line that has made people shudder throughout 2020, as messages bearing this header arrive in their inbox.
At the start of the pandemic, these emails were helpful and informative about companies’ altered schedules or changes in service, but they quickly turned into a pile-on from seemingly every business customers had patronized. Retailers emailed customers who thought they’d unsubscribed in the distant past; restaurants customers went to once years ago reached out.
Increasingly, these so-called updates just became more of the same chatter, full of familiar safety pledges. Customers saw through this disingenuous coronavirus marketing, especially if they hadn’t interacted with these companies in years. As sales plummeted in the contracting economy and companies tried to determine which way to turn, each new email became little more than a bandwagon display of sympathy or an attempt to drum up any sale possible.
Amidst this deluge of identical, empty marketing, high-end fashion retailer Rag & Bone sent out a different type of email. In a letter that appears to have been punched out on a typewriter with his personal stationery, Rag & Bone founder Marcus Wainwright addressed his staff and customers, announcing the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: a universal lowering of its prices.
One of the cornerstones of Rag & Bone’s brand is an aversion to discounting or sales of most kinds. Outside of the occasional out-of-season items or a small opt-in offer for new email subscribers, Rag & Bone never discounts. Even during the 2008 financial crisis, Rag & Bone kept its products’ price point consistent. Rag & Bone’s key criteria for pricing: quality determines price point, which in turn elevates its brand to designer status. Staying true to this philosophy earned it the loyalty of many customers during that period.
Clearly something changed for Rag & Bone: its founder made a decision counter to the one that had defined his brand in the past. Was this just a reflection of a tougher economic climate and a need to follow the steps of retailers to remain competitive? Or something else?
The retailers putting out endless COVID updates lost sight of the very people they were messaging: their customers. Just as in relationships people need support from others during vulnerable moments, companies must offer the same support on a commercial level. In order to engage with customers, companies must step outside the bounds of business to show they understand their customer by actively demonstrating empathy.
Wainwright uses his letter as an opportunity to reestablish the brand’s commitment to “traditional and authentic craftsmanship and construction” in its product, as well as his belief “in giving our customers products that have value.” Rag & Bone’s commitment to the quality of its product hasn’t changed, and Wainwright wants to convey that he’s not shirking the brand’s values, but instead adopting a new one: empathy. In 2008, sustaining higher price points actually increased brand loyalty. But Wainwright acknowledges that the current situation is very different, and “we need to do all we can to support and protect…our customers;” in this case lowering prices across the board “until this is over, or until we are allowed out of our homes and back to work.”
Wainwright saw in the midst of crisis an opportunity to bond with customers. His audience is in a vulnerable state, and to make them feel comfortable he removed the anonymity of his business and put a face on commerce: his own.
A closer look at the letter reveals how Wainwright effectively demonstrates empathy on behalf of the brand. Wainwright opens the message by assessing the situation through the eyes of the customer, considering what they might be experiencing during this time. He anticipates potential objections to engaging in a transaction with Rag & Bone during the current economic state by addressing cost head-on, and explaining the brand’s values and products in a way that justifies their historical price. After getting the customer to the point of understanding Rag & Bone’s pricing strategy—even in the midst of a crisis—Wainwright shifts into empathizing with his customer: “But like the rest of the world and the rest of the industry we are doing our best to navigate our way through this…” Wainwright follows with the unexpected decision to lower prices, keeping Rag & Bone’s products accessible to customers at a time where other luxury goods might be slipping out of reach.
Wainwright subsequently notes that “the time for buying stuff for the sake of it is over,” and he positions Rag & Bone products as an expenditure that is worthwhile, even when purse strings are tight. Wainwright points out that a well-made t-shirt can “feel a whole lot better than a disposable one,” indicating his awareness of his customers’ emotional needs: just because times are tough doesn’t mean customers must resort to disposable fashion. Maintaining access to luxury fashion might be one of the few things that provides comfort and a reassurance of stability at a time when everything else feels upside down.
Most importantly, Wainwright humanizes the company. Through his own voice and the voice of Rag & Bone, he expresses relatable vulnerability. Wainwright comes down from his position of authority and levels with the customer. He admits that just like everyone else, the company faces hardships: “decisions I personally never thought I’d ever have to even consider, let alone make.” He also notes that he currently limits himself to making only necessary or meaningful purchases, as he too engages in cautionary spending. Wainwright champions a message of connection through shared experience. No one is left untouched by the pandemic.
Ultimately, his parting words in the letter are a wish and encouragement, not a plug for sales. With a reaffirmation of the world’s resiliency, he expresses a genuine hope that humanity emerges from the pandemic “wiser and more human that we went into it.”
By showing bona fide concern for the current crisis and outlining a plan to ameliorate circumstances, customers will associate the Rag & Bone brand with attributes of compassion and understanding. Key to this recognition is adopting a lasting sentiment and not a temporary business strategy. Simply playing the sympathy card not only portrays a company as deceitful, but also a manipulator that preys on emotion for the sake of profit. Customers won’t be fooled by companies that broadcast a sympathetic message as a one-and-done action that doesn’t continue to inform the way they treat customer relationships.
Sympathy lacks understanding. While being sympathetic may recognize what someone else is feeling, it doesn’t translate into understanding their experience. If companies don’t understand their customers’ situation, they can’t understand their needs and are unable to provide solutions.
If Rag & Bone, for example, exclusively cared about increasing revenue in the short-term to overcome the impact of the pandemic, the company could have offered a flash sale or discounted select merchandise. Rag & Bone also could have just maintained its higher price point that cemented customer loyalty in the past. Instead, the very nature and duration of the discount reflects Rag & Bone’s decision to align the interests of its business with that of its customers. Unlike many companies who put out a generic message of “we’re all in this together,” Rag & Bone focused on empathizing with the customers to make them feel better.
Instead of following the trend of ineffectual sympathy emails, Rag & Bone broke away by demonstrating the brand’s empathic understanding of its customers and took an action that offered to help. The brand’s decision wasn’t determined by what competitors were doing or tactics to widen profit margins, but by its customer. This method works because it doesn’t pander to what brands think their customers want to hear, but instead gives them what they need.
Companies shouldn’t wait until the next major crisis before engaging with customers in this manner or only demonstrate empathy during catastrophic events. Establishing empathy as part of a brand’s story now will help customers in the future discern which businesses are acting authentically, which messages resonate and which ones they ignore, and, ultimately, which brands to support. For Rag & Bone, empathy became part of the fabric of the brand and is now woven into its story.
Meghan is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.