If you're interested in design or sustainability, Nau is probably at the top of your list of companies to admire. Since launching in 2007, they've challenged conventional business ideas with the goal to be both financially successful and socially responsible. How has their brand created such a clear vision and strong following? We spoke with Bob Speltz, Director of Community Partnership, and Ian Yolles, VP of Brand Communications, to learn more about Nau's success.
Beauty, performance, and sustainability are at the heart of Nau products. Why is it important to embrace all three of these elements?
Ian: One of the things that we’re very interested in at Nau is challenging conventional paradigms regarding how we think and behave in the world. The idea of beauty, performance, and sustainability as an integrated triumverate is a great example of that because historically the traditional view has been that if you set out to design a product combining those three attributes, you will end up with a compromised product. In other words, the conventional paradigm and assumption has been that those three ingredients from a design point of view are somehow mutually exclusive. Last week, I engaged students at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. I began by asking a leading question, meaning a question with a pretty predictable answer. I asked, “When you think of green apparel, what images comes to mind?” They said things like Birkenstock, boring, colorless, hemp, scratchy. There is this traditional image in people’s minds that these three ideas cannot be blended together in a single product. Our view was that although that may have been historically true, it was no longer true. Given the evolution of technology and the appropriate amount of creativity and innovation, we could design products that blended all three of these ingredients. In fact, it was something we believed consumers would be interested in.Is it important for businesses to be environmentally and socially responsible? How can they do that while still benefiting their bottom line?
Ian: It’s vitally important. Part our collective assertion is that not only does sustainability need to be at the forefront of our thinking, but in fact businesses have a much broader responsibility to the community than pursuit of profit. We feel strongly about that, and it’s reflected in all the decisions we’ve made, not only in terms of how we design our products but also how we’ve designed the entire company.
Our customers are confronted with questions. What kind of social change do they believe in? At point of purchase, they have to make a decision about a set of issues and an organization that they want Nau to support with 5% of that purchase.What does authenticity mean to Nau? Your writing isn't afraid to admit imperfection- is it as simple as that, or is there more to it?
Ian: I think that’s part of it. Where and how you begin sets a certain trajectory and establishes a tone for everything that’s going to follow. I’m not advocating that there’s only one right place to begin, but what’s interesting is that in our case we chose to begin with a question – “who are we?” If you think about an authentic person, they have a sense of who they are, and their behavior in the world is congruent with that. That’s what authenticity is all about: congruency. People who think about the world of branding go straight to the externalities, things like the look of the logo and advertising. But authenticity is built from the inside out. Transparency is a part of it too. It adds to the authenticity to be able to say, “Here’s who we are, we’re not perfect.” There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to a person or a brand. We also want to be as transparent as we can, particularly given the nature of the digital world where stories are told and can be spread quickly. There is also a persistence of memory in the digital world. Those forces mean that how you behave as a person and as a company is much more important than it used to be. It’s also clear that this path of sustainability we’re trying to pursue is an aspirational path. The decisions we have to make are inherently complex, there’s lots of ambiguity and a lot of tradeoffs. The world isn’t black and white in terms of these decisions. That’s why we launched the section of our website called “grey matters.” It purposely explores this very grey world. We’re trying to be as transparent as we can with the nature of the decisions we’ve made, why we’ve made them, recognizing that there have been a variety of tradeoffs along the way.
One of the things I really liked on the Nau site is the "grey matters" section. People seem to be realizing that these issues are extremely nuanced, not cut-and-dried. How have consumers responded to Nau's frank, honest discussion of these issues?
Ian: People find it incredibly refreshing that we are being not only transparent but educational. Grey Matters has helped educate our community and our customers on many of the issues that we face in trying to pursue a more sustainable way of doing business. It’s also invited further dialogue and conversation with our customers about some of the issues they’ve faced and the decisions we’ve made.
People find it incredibly refreshing that we are being not only transparent but educational.The Greener Grass is studying communities. Tell us about your community partnerships and how they’re different from traditional philanthropy.
Bob: From the very beginning, we started with some challenging ideas about partnership. I would characterize our relationships as very dynamic. Coming from a background in traditional corporate philanthropy, for many companies, philanthropy can be reduced to cutting checks to dozens of organizations over the course of the year, and then moving on to other organizations and other issues. We wanted to blow that model up and think about it very differently. Instead of a short term focus, we take a long term approach. We work with partners for at least two years, ideally much longer. We believe to realize the benefit of partnerships, we need to come together to understand each other’s needs. Typically, corporations place heavy restrictions on the money that they invest in their partners, allowing them to spend those dollars on very narrowly focused needs. For real social change to happen, we need to lift those restrictions, trust our partners, and believe in them enough that they’ll invest those monies in the ways that best benefit the organization. We hear from our partners that these unrestricted dollars are the hardest to raise for them, so it’s a very powerful form of partnership. We also engage in modern day digital storytelling. When a customer comes into our website or one of our stores, there’s tremendous opportunity for interaction. Our customers are confronted with questions. What kind of social change do they believe in? What issues are out there affecting their community or the planet? At point of purchase, they have to make a decision about a set of issues and an organization that they want Nau to support with 5% of that purchase. It’s disruptive and intentional, but also very exciting. This exposes our partners to thousands of people, whether its online or in the store. We think that storytelling is powerful.One part of your website, The Collective, shares stories that represent the Nau community. What were the challenges of this project, and how will you know when it’s successful?
Ian: At the core of what we’re doing is this idea of positive change, and it’s reflected in everything we do. We’re interested in creating venues for dialogue and conversation, particularly around the subject of positive change. One way we did this was by launching our business through our blog, The Thought Kitchen. We thought it would be interesting to launch through the blog because it was a venue to host conversations. That led to the idea of The Collective, a place to host stories about positive change seen through the eyes of artists, athletes, and activists. Some of it is content we create, but we’ve also invited our community to send us content that they’ve created. If it fits within our editorial direction we’ll include it in the section. We’re also using those stories as the foundational content for monthly events in our stores. We have the ability to track how many people are watching our content, but there’s a qualitative dimension in terms of engagement around ideas and stories that reflect the depth of what we’re doing and enable a certain depth of quality in terms of customer engagement.More traditional business owners might be surprised to know that Nau balances profitability with philanthropy. Why are social and environmental concerns just as important as your bottom line?
Within Nau, there are all kinds of compelling examples where this antiquated paradigm of “either or” has been replaced with the notion of “and."
Ian: It comes back to the conventional notion that you can’t balance the two. There is the orthodox notion that if you want to be profitable, you can’t pursue issues pertaining to sustainability because they will eat into your profit. The first thing is shifting one’s thinking. We’ve had the opportunity to design an entire company from the ground up. What’s unique in our case is that this process of design has been deeply informed by our commitment to sustainability, and the assertion that companies have a broader responsibility to our community than the singular pursuit of profit at the expense of everything else. What happens if you’re going through this design process with these ideas at the center of your consciousness? The kind of questions you ask shifts, and the nature of your inquiry and engagement changes. The way you think begins to change, which leads to different behaviors. In the end, it’s all about the way you think. Even the philanthropic part of our model is different. Five percent of sales is completely unprecedented by orders of magnitude. It’s way beyond the established benchmark of corporate philanthropy. So how can we be profitable and give away 5% of every sale? It is genuine philanthropy but it’s also about storytelling. Not only are we telling the stories of our nonprofit partners, they’re telling the story of our Partners for Change program. Their ability to tell the story of our partnership is a foundational part of our marketing effort, versus spending a bunch of money on advertising, which, in the end, we think is not nearly as credible and authentic as having our nonprofit partners talk about the meaning of their relationship with us. We also think there is a growing group of customers who want to not only buy products and services that meet all the traditional parts of their value equation, but want to do business with companies whose values and character reflect their own. Our view is that over time our practices will generate deeper customer loyalty and help differentiate ourselves from our competitive set. Within Nau, there are all kinds of compelling examples where this antiquated paradigm of “either or” has been replaced with the notion of “and.” These things can be synergistic and complementary.Corporate social responsibility seems to come naturally for Nau. What advice do you have for businesses that want to do a better job?
Ian: When we set out to initiate this process of design, these ideas were baked into who we are. They were baked into our early DNA. It’s a different challenge for an existing business to begin to go down this path. Out observation is that exploration has to begin with a deep cultural shift. Prior to thinking about the externalities of business, you have to examine how you think and who you are. I would begin by asking, “To what extent are these issues important to us? To what extent do we feel these issues need to become a part of who we are, and ultimately affect how we do business?”
We tend to define our success more broadly than traditional companies, but if we’re not successful from the standpoint of traditional business metrics, then our credibility and sphere of influence will be confined and limited.Nau is a big hit with socially conscious consumers, but compared to the corporate giants of the apparel industry, still a relatively small company. How big can and should Nau become? Does Nau need to become a giant to achieve the company's goals?
Ian: We believe that our ability to have a constructive impact on the world and in the business community will be somewhat commensurate with our success. We tend to define our success more broadly than traditional companies, but if we’re not successful from the standpoint of traditional business metrics, then our credibility and sphere of influence will be confined and limited. We definitely aspire to be an extremely successful company based on all the traditional metrics of business success, because that will enhance our sphere of influence in the business community. Ultimately, our success will be dependent on the reaction by the community to our business. At the end of the day, customers will decide how they feel about us. But even as a small fledgling little business that’s just been launched, we’ve been surprised at the way in which people have looked to us for thought leadership. We wanted to be a positive catalyst within the business community. We’ve been invited to speak at many of the top business schools in the country – Harvard, Columbia, Kellogg. We’ve been invited to meet with companies like Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, some of the largest companies in America. We take a certain degree of pride in how we’ve evolved the business to date, but we realize we have a long way to go before we can say we’re a commercially viable sustainable enterprise.Nau's products and practices are already remarkably progressive and far ahead of what anybody else is doing, but I'm sure you have even bigger plans. What can we expect from Nau in the future?
Ian: We’re on the cusp of opening a series of new stores, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Boston. We need to generate a broader community and a broader group of customers. We need to open more retail stores and continue to refine our point of view on our product. For us right now, it’s really about extending and deepening what we’ve started.Thanks to Bob and Ian for sharing these great insights.
Check out the Nau site and their new spring line.
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