In the look ahead to 2021 I wrote back in January, I said “inclusion and representation have shifted from matters of concern to moral imperatives.” I also said that the voice of Gen Z “will grow much louder as we emerge from our homes this year.” Seven months later, we’ve seen these two predictions borne out, and seen that they are tightly linked together. It’s the rising voice of Gen Z that’s most loudly demanding greater inclusion, making it not only a moral imperative but a financial one as well – and proof is coming from some unexpected places.
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue probably isn’t where most folks’ minds would go if asked for an example of a woke publication. After all, it wasn’t until the late `90s that a woman of color graced the cover, and while there have been a few other moves towards greater inclusion since then the cover has generally featured supermodels and other women who fit a particular definition of beauty.
This year is different. Naomi Osaka isn’t the first athlete to be featured on the cover, and Megan Thee Stallion isn’t the first musician – but each defies the publication’s traditional beauty standards in ways neither Anna Kournikova nor Beyoncé did. Leyna Bloom looks more like the expected image of a cover model – but as a transwoman, her presence is even more groundbreaking. While there are still plenty of the traditional models in the issue itself, the fact that none are on the cover is a first.
SI wasn’t the only brand to break with the past on the matter of beauty standards this summer. Last month, Victoria’s Secret announced that they were leaving the Angels behind in an effort to move “from what men want to what women want”. The new faces of the brand will be athletes, activists, and entrepreneurs such as Megan Rapinoe and Priyanka Chopra. The announcement by CEO Martin Waters explicitly referenced topics of inclusion vs. exclusion and being grounded in real life.
This isn’t the first time Victoria’s Secret has made adjustments after growing out of step with cultural trends and with its customer base; it did so about 20 years ago as well. But the adjustments it made then were much less fundamental. VS, like SI, is adapting to a broad-based shift in culture. Neither is doing it for altruistic reasons – these changes are driven by the bottom line. Middle America is where these brands live, and Middle America is redefining what “sexy” means.
The lessons these examples hold for marketers are profound, even outside the beauty and fashion categories. The American market, increasingly led by Gen Z, doesn’t just demand inclusion more than ever before; they define inclusion in increasingly diverse ways. It’s not just about culture and ethnicity anymore. Brands that get ahead of the cultural changes (or, like Savage X Fenty, help shape them!) will reap rewards. PACO can help yours do it. Drop us a line so we can start to explore how.