When Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler launched the first Universal Standard apparel collection in 2015, all 3,000 pieces sold out in six days.
“When we first started, we were all stuffed in my one bedroom apartment,” says Waldman. “We were designing jeans on the floor, never having done anything remotely like this. When we sold out of those 3,000 pieces, we knew this was a real business and it had real potential. And so we just really threw ourselves into it.”
In an increasingly crowded ecommerce market, this success is exceptional. Last week at Untapped, Waldman sat down with Sprout Social’s Chief Marketing Officer Jamie Gilpin to share how Universal Standard stands out from its contemporaries by capitalizing on opportunities that match their focus and audience.
If you missed it, or if you need to tap back into the inspiration, here are the three most important takeaways for brands navigating business growth:
1. Focus on authenticity to drive connections
When discussing the origins of Universal Standard, Waldman coined a phrase that encapsulates what the brand set out to do.
“We were not interested in anything that anybody else was doing,” says Waldman. “We understood that only authenticity would engineer this loud silence—a loud silence that simply points to the fact that this is how it always should have been.”
A loud silence allows your work (or products or services) to make a statement, rather than you making a statement for your work. For Universal Standard, this meant creating beautifully made, well-constructed basics for women of all sizes. While this is a relatively simple idea, it shocked a market that has separated straight and plus-size women’s clothing for decades.
“I knew the things that I was looking for that weren’t out there,” says Waldman. “If I wanted a white t-shirt, I had to choose between one with a little embroidered bouquet or a puppy or kitten. I was like, ‘why can’t I just get a great white t-shirt that fits my body perfectly?’ This is crazy.”
Waldman knew that if she felt so strongly about this, others did too. By challenging the way things had always been, she struck a chord with women who identified with her frustration, creating a lasting brand connection with their audience.
Seventy-eight percent of consumers want brands to use social to help people connect with each other and are more loyal to brands they feel connected to. These connections can’t be bought or earned with one-and-done campaigns. They need to be fostered authentically with a brand message that feels genuine and relevant.
Developing that message relies on looking at your audience with fresh eyes. Pour over demographic data and assess who’s represented on your website, emails and social content. This is also a great time to dig into any “loud silences” in your industry. Is there anything you do simply because it’s always been done that way? Are you seeking a diverse set of opinions before launching new campaigns, messaging or creative?
Asking these questions can help you continue to refine your brand presence so that it accurately speaks to the diverse needs of your customers.
2. Let your brand purpose speak for itself
Despite what fans of the brand may think, Waldman says Universal Standard is not about body positivity.
“Body positivity is a very important thing, and it’s a very personal thing,” says Waldman. “No brand should co-opt it in order to sell you a frock.”
Consumers are becoming increasingly more conscientious about the brands they choose to support. While 70% say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues, many are wary of the performative woke-washing that has become increasingly common over the past few years. These tactics not only come off as disingenuous—they water down the message of the revolutionary ideas they’re intended to communicate.
How can brands carefully walk this line? First, reflect on whether your brand is living its purpose or speaking it. Universal Standard lives its purpose by being the change its founders set out to make.
“We wanted to normalize the idea of a vast representation of body types and races and genders and ages—and not say anything about it,” says Waldman. “We have no lesson to teach. We just want it to be an example.”
This philosophy toward inclusivity removes the pressure of the bold commitments that have become synonymous with brand activism, leaving more room for an authentic social presence that shows rather than tells.
“Social media has made us experts at just about everything, at least, in our own minds,” says Waldman. “And your consumer can read you from far away. They know when you’re just making the right noises and when you’re actually doing something that matters.”
3. To be your consumer’s choice, you have to listen
Consumers have more options than ever. Now, even simple purchases come with a slew of decisions, giving buyers more freedom to choose products that align with their specific needs and lifestyle.
“Brands used to tell the consumer what they should want,” says Waldman. “Now, it’s the other way around, largely because of social media. The consumer can tell brands how they shop and what’s important to them. The change of that dialogue has been revelatory.”
When brands listen to the needs of their target audience, they uncover the insights needed to stay ahead of the pack. Because Universal Standard’s brand purpose is so personal to Waldman’s own experience, she was able to use her own consumer frustrations to create products that resonated with shoppers globally.
“We decided to make jewelry that was size inclusive and at first, some people were confused,” explained Waldman. “They didn’t know what I knew as a consumer. I couldn’t buy bracelets for myself. If I want a choker, it’s going to choke me.”
Relying on these insights proved to be successful. “For about a week, you couldn’t Google the word jewelry without Universal Standard making size-inclusive jewelry being the top pick.”
If you’re not part of your company’s target audience, or if you want to validate a theory on what your audience might want next, social media is the place to start. Digging into the conversations and interactions that happen on social media can help you stay on top of rapidly changing consumer interests, helping you make business decisions centered on your ideal customer.
Native analytics tools can help illuminate what your audience is talking about right now, but if you want to get even more specific, you’ll need a social listening solution. These will help you narrow down on the keywords that are driving conversations in your industry while providing deeper insights on conversation volume, sentiment and more.
Set a new standard
Universal Standard is a masterful study in navigating what it means to be a brand in today’s society. While there are no universal blueprints for success, Waldman’s advice can help marketers across industries reconnect with their audience to create more meaningful, lasting connections.
For more from Alexandra and other leaders taking bold risks in their industries, check out recordings from Untapped: Leaders Talk Opportunity.
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