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If You Sell Online, You Better Keep It Real

Online retailers are developing socially responsible brands with clear positions on issues such as poverty and LGBTQ rights to bolster consumer engagement.

Deborah L. Cohen
If You Sell Online, You Better Keep It Real

Developing a socially responsible brand with clear positions on issues such as better food choices for low-income families and LGBTQ rights can bolster consumer engagement for online retailers in an increasingly crowded market, an e-commerce panel stressed at the ACG LA Business Conference on Thursday.

“People have a lot of voting power with their dollars,” said Gunnar Lovelace, founder and CEO of Thrive Market, an online seller of organic foods and healthy lifestyle products at wholesale prices. The company’s mission includes providing free subscriptions to its membership club for the underprivileged.

The program is part of the e-tailer’s modus operandi, inspired by Lovelace’s own experience growing up with a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. The company has lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow food stamp participants to purchase products from online sellers; today they are restricted to brick-and-mortar stores.

“We’ve built an incredible competency around storytelling,” said Lovelace, speaking during the panel, which addressed how digital brands are disrupting the retail marketplace. Thrive Market offers transparency around its supply chain, and its direct-selling model allows it to pass savings onto consumers.

Underwear with Care

A commitment to social responsibility can help to make or break emerging online brands at a time when giants like Amazon, Target and Walmart are buying competitors to control more of the online market and brick-and-mortar retailers are going under in record numbers.

“What the brand represents about the product is huge,” said panelist Taylor Holiday, managing partner for the Common Thread Collective, a marketing firm supporting online brand strategy.

MeUndies, an online-only seller of “softer than soft” basics, such as panties and briefs, was also represented on the panel. The company is forthright about only sourcing goods from “factories that take exceptional care of their employees,” its website explains. Its core values include fair trade standards for the facilities it uses in Turkey and Sri Lanka, including frequent on-site audits.

“The inclusivity angle we have is shown across our brand,” said Greg Fass, who heads the company’s marketing efforts.

From left: Taylor Holliday, Gunnar Lovelace and Greg Fass

MeUndies gets out in front on social issues, such as support of LGBTQ rights. During Pride Month earlier this year, it launched a “Celebrate Yourself” campaign that included the sale of undergarments with a special rainbow polka-dot pride print. MeUndies donated a portion of the sales to Los Angeles’ LGBT Center, the world’s largest organization for LGBT health and advocacy.

The efforts help MeUndies engage with consumers in a “product category that has been very boring,” said Fass, adding that advertising on podcasts with “influencers that people trust” has also helped to differentiate its products.

The impact of addressing important social issues appears to figure into strategic decisions at sellers like these, whose buyers tend to be aware of how their purchasing decisions affect the world they live in.

“It’s really a valuable brand differentiator,” said Thrive Market’s Lovelace. “We see it as a major competitive advantage.”


Deborah L. Cohen is editor-in-chief of Middle Market Growth.