Brands as a canvas for community objectives

How genuine partnership can be a force for communities.

Navigating today’s cultural landscape can be complex, but there are huge benefits to be found in collaboration. Our marketing director Danielle Higgins and creative director Erwin Hines discuss here how people can work together with brands to achieve their goals, and the mutual benefits to be found in cooperation.

What are we talking about when we’re talking about brands and communities, communities and brands?

DH: Tying commerce to community can be a dangerous proposition. Communities are not built to fight against the big dogs, but to survive among them. There are ways to authentically use brands to uplift those communities, give their voice a platform and build wealth in those communities. It’s about people and where the power lies. 

EH: What I generally talk about in conversations like this is using the system to subvert the system. Especially now that we’ve entered into a new time where artists and creators have more power within the boardrooms, it’s what you do with that power that makes the difference. Not doing the same old, same old, but actually using brands and organizations as canvases to initiate change.

I’ll say too, I always speak about it in a way that’s aggressively for the artists and the people. We’re not here to provide tactics to organizations that aren’t authentically connected to communities, just so they can fakely connect to communities and profit off them. What I’m personally invested in is actual internal restructuring in organizations to authentically communicate.

DH: Yeah, a seat at the table is a great place to start, but we’re moving past that being enough. I’m interested in action and reaction, how our work as creatives is going to make life better for all of us, from the bottom up.

EH: The worst thing that could happen is brands coming into our communities, researching them, and then having this small group of people with power to then shape our community and the perspective of that community via the screens they control. 

That’s a big piece of the conversation for me—how brands control screens that end up shaping internal and external narratives about communities and marginalized communities. And how those brands can do a better job of actually telling fuller narratives and fuller stories so that communities don’t get one-dimensionalized. 

Surf Pencil

Brands and organizations have tremendous pull: political pull, cultural pull, and if you can make an impact and help shift the perspective within an organization, you can then impact and shift things in all those arenas.”

How can the relationship between communities and brands be a positive one? Not exploitative, not just a show, but one that’s beneficial on both sides?

EH: I think it’s all about how creatives and community leaders can use brands. I think of brands as a canvas, a very effective one. Because brands and organizations have tremendous pull: political pull, cultural pull, and if you can make an impact and help shift the perspective within an organization, you can then impact and shift things in all those arenas. Creative work has the power to do that.

Patagonia, for example. Patagonia actually does lobby and they do fight for the land. So does Keen shoes. They have people working to save public space. That’s when you can recognize the power of brands and organizations beyond the ability to sell some product; you can realize their potential on the political side and the agenda side. 

DH: Same within the beauty industry—Sephora was called out years ago to balance out their product line and carry more brands that were more inclusive to ALL women. And that’s because the women who ran those brands were bringing in their people, their communities, with democratized advertising driving sales that were going to shutter their business. Now 80% of the products inside of that store are brands represented by individual women. And because of the representation there, then you have breakout brands that go way, way, way beyond Sephora. They outperform DTC brands in any vertical—you’ve got Fenty, Tatcha, Iman, VonD, Kylie etc… it goes on… all of that was not possible, say, 20 years ago. It’s a big power shift and other industries have been modeling it.

EH: When you look at Telfar and the culture that Telfar represents, the black, queer underground culture of New York, that was never really represented by a brand in its totality before them. It was represented in subculture brands, for sure, and it was picked and pulled at by larger brands. There’s just some beautiful things that happen when you understand as an individual creator, like Telfar, the power of recognizing your own story, your own community, and then standing in that power and not giving it away to anybody, but becoming a brand that now has the influence, the prestige to then shape and shift different community infrastructures. 

Creators can be Robin Hood. Virgil Abloh? Robin Hood. He went into some of the biggest brands in the world, not really caring what they were doing, but focused on his mission, applying that mission and using the brands he worked with as canvases to speak up for communities, in his case, black creators and the black creative lexicon. To me, that’s such a cool, special thing right now that we as creators can recognize that kind of power.

Technology is a huge part in the timing of these movements. The democratization of media, having access to audiences, to tools, the ability to reach people to such a degree didn’t exist before.”

How did this shift in power come about? 

DH: Technology is a huge part in the timing of these movements. The democratization of media, having access to audiences, to tools, the ability to reach people to such a degree didn’t exist before. There were gatekeepers, there were closed doors. It was the broadcasters and media companies and brands who were arbiters of what had a voice. Now it’s open—you can put what you’re doing out there to people before it has to go through their filter. You have a direct line in, and that conversation is loud, it’s everyone moving together in real time. 

EH: You can take music as one example—it probably had the most complex structure around it. Where a creator once had to book studio time, get engineering, distribution of physical things… Now, anyone can download a studio onto their phone, make their art on their phone, distribute their art from their phone. You have big artists like Steve Lacy, he’s making some of his beats just on his phone. 

And there are changes not just in creation, but the democratization of success and what that even means. Independent artists are recognizing that they only need their million followers. They don’t need stardom, some big, expansive reach. They have their million followers and they make a living from that in some way, shape or form. You no longer have to exist within the traditional structure that the world once said you had to exist in. Different economies are being created, ones that aren’t defined by anything, not brand, or government—the user gets to define what is the new economy.

This mass democratization of all things has really given people the ability to define a whole new world. Young people especially, they likely won’t have to work full-time jobs as we know them, and they don’t have to be defined by one singular thing ever in their life.

DH: And I tell you what, at least in the conversations I’m in, it’s not going to go back to the way it was, ever. No one’s going to let that happen, because the benefits are so much better for them. Nothing is going to go backwards. The speed of it all is dizzying, but a lot of fun to watch.

Where do brands fit into all this? 

EH: Like I said, I’m here to help people learn how to subvert brand systems to better their community. That’s what I always feel like I’m here to do. And I think once people started having as much, or more, power than some organizations, and organizations started paying influencers, as opposed to agencies, sometimes millions of dollars, those people became brands, and the playing field became level between an influencer who has essentially become a brand, and what we know as a “brand” brand.

DH: I think of Nicole McLaughlin, she’s a designer and engineer who wanted everyday detritus and common objects to have real meaning—her art started as a protest, yknow? It went beyond “upcycling”and reframed the fashion industry. She became “that” influencer. You can see her influence at Balenciaga, Patagonia, Dickies, Nike, Jansport, Puma, the list is really long. She sits on advisory boards for these huge companies helping them re-use and rethink their scraps and production—that’s a powerful relationship that benefits everyone. Changing global production models and supply chain dependencies from your IG feed? That happened because she used branded goods to do it.

I had an art professor who always said: “What is the artist’s job? To mirror the culture back on itself. That’s the job of the artist.” I look at our work as an agency in the same way: if an agency is setting the tone for the brand, we have to be out ahead of culture, on the front lines. It’s your duty to be out in front, paying attention all the time for the people who aren’t. That means being involved, genuinely. And as far as what I can make happen via brands through my work here at Traina, I’m always going to find opportunities to make things better for our communities. It’s a duty, really.

EH: I love how you bring up art. I’ve found people tend to separate design from fine art, but I agree we should all have a fine art mindset because at the end of the day, even if you’re designing something for a client, you’re still putting yourself into that. You’re recognizing that what you put out into the world has meaning, has reason, has purpose and it’s a reflection of who you are at that time. Over time you see that you’ll have periods as a designer—like Picasso had periods—you can trace back your life and see, Oh, this how I was feeling, this is what was happening in society, and you see that articulated in the work and the brands you work with.

You need to hire more individuals from diverse communities, allow them to cross-pollinate across different communities, and allow them to really speak to their community and speak for the needs of their community.”

So what can brands do to make a positive impact and a genuinely beneficial relationship with communities?

EH: My agenda on the brand side is essentially: You need to hire more individuals from diverse communities, allow them to cross-pollinate across different communities, and allow them to really speak to their community and speak for the needs of their community. With Nike, for instance, you can’t just say, or portray, that basketball is the only way out of the hood, because that’s an incredibly one-dimensional view you’re giving to those outside of the community, and the same from within—you now only see basketball as the way out, or rap as the way out, because those are the two things that are promoted to you.

Nike is a great example of a brand who is starting to use their influence to help reshape perceptions of communities. On top of highlighting athletes at the top of their game, they’re telling more nuanced stories of healers, artists, and other types of community members. In doing this, they’re expanding the possibilities of the community.

DH: It needs to be honest for sure, you have to really start from the inside out, not the other way around. Tokenism is a real thing. The blast that went out recently for Victoria’s Secret? It’s one of the most offensive pieces of media I’ve ever seen. They went from stick angels on a runway and a leadership sex scandal to a huge DE&I campaign that did more harm than good. They could have changed their leadership, the organization at its core, but instead on every channel, billboard, everywhere, this full blast of “fake inclusivity”—everyone saw through it and they had to pull it. They took action in the wrong direction, it was inauthentic and hurt their business. It missed the point.

EH: For that reason I’ll reference Nike again, because even though they’re not perfect, it feels like they’re really doing the work. It’s not just a mass blast all over every piece of media, a big show. They’ll work with these specific communities on small scale activations and they’ll promote something to specific communities, making micro-investments into local projects. 

DH: One thing brands could really benefit from in this discussion is the need to appoint people within your organization who are genuinely curating relationships with community, in addition to thinking about community from a business perspective. Let someone own this who knows this, then let it grow. There are brands doing this today: Nike, Jansport, Under Armor, RedBull, Monster. Alt bev has been doing it for years; the entire rise and acquisition of Saint Archer was through community skateboarding reps and their networks.

EH: Agencies can work like that too. They can be a force that helps brands truly identify opportunity in a real way, help shift brands and shift the conversation that brands are having. That’s why I’m at Traina, because I saw the ability to be more nimble within organizations, to actually become true collaborators. The collaboration model is really interesting, the fact that you could have so much power to shift organizations and create new collaborations, to be sought out for your perspective because brands acknowledge that they need help in connecting to a broader community.

DH: Brands can also help communities by just answering their questions – how do you get found? How do you get seen? How can you be a part of the conversation? The organizations that are doing it right—they’ve appointed people who are in charge of bringing communities in, answering questions and listening to their needs in a genuine way. They are distributing wealth, and that’s a good start.

Let’s move things forward.