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Shanee Benjamin/Vox

Brands once used elitism to market themselves. Now inclusion sells.

Millennials value authenticity, so businesses are embracing inclusion like never before.

A generation ago, many brands promoted products by cultivating an image of privilege. Ads oozed wealth, glamour, and a very defined concept of beauty. The bulk of them centered on people who were thin, white, cisgender, and non-disabled.

While ads based on exclusion haven’t vanished, today, inclusion sells. It’s hard to argue that a business can be truly innovative if it’s leaving out large swaths of the marketplace; a fashion brand can hardly call itself mainstream and superior if its size range is too small for the average shopper to wear. In this way, inclusivity has become its own metric for being best in class, and millennials are responding with their dollars. Research shows that the generation, projected to outnumber baby boomers in 2030, respond to marketing that’s relevant and authentic, and reflects the diversity they see in their communities. Because it pays for companies to be inclusive, some brands are making inclusion the entire focus of their product lines.

Clothing brands such as Universal Standard have built their identity on the fact that they offer sizes for women with a wide range of body types. In spring, the lingerie company ThirdLove declared (wrongly) in a press release that it offered more bra sizes than any other brand, and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty won widespread praise, including being named one of Time magazine’s best 2017 inventions, for its 40-shade foundation range. In May, when Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage x Fenty dropped, featuring an array of shades and sizes, it too received applause for being inclusive. Yet some customers didn’t think Savage was quite inclusive enough.

During a time when inclusion has become both a selling point and an expectation, companies will continue to face backlash for falling short when it comes to inclusion or for framing themselves as pioneers at it when they’re not. The reality, of course, is that no brand can be all things to all people, but it’s in the best interest of socially conscious shoppers to distinguish the companies genuinely invested in inclusion from the ones that view it as a means to financial gain.

Inclusivity in lingerie is about both sizing and skin tone

For years, Victoria’s Secret has been a brand based on exclusivity, but in an age when inclusion is widely championed, the lingerie maker has seen its sales slump. The retailer’s mounting irrelevance came to a head when its chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, told Vogue last month that he didn’t think the annual fashion show should include “transsexuals” because the show “is a fantasy.” He also said that no one had any interest in seeing a Victoria’s Secret show for plus sizes and seemingly made a jab at ThirdLove when he quipped, “We’re nobody’s third love. We’re their first love.”

The outcry about Razek’s comments grew so loud that the executive attempted to clarify them later, but the damage, it seemed, had been done. ThirdLove, which has billed itself as being inclusive, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times taking Victoria’s Secret to task.

“It’s time to stop telling women what makes them sexy — let us decide,” ThirdLove’s CEO Heidi Zak said in the ad. “We’re done with pretending certain sizes don’t exist or aren’t important enough to serve. And please stop insisting that inclusivity is a trend.”

But if inclusion isn’t a trend, it’s certainly marketable now in a way that it traditionally hasn’t been. Cora Harrington, author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie and founder of the Lingerie Addict blog, said that because consumers tend to be uneducated about lingerie generally, their perceptions about how inclusive a particular brand or product is may be skewed. A company may market itself as inclusive when it’s simply practicing industry standards.

Earlier this year, when ThirdLove introduced what it characterized as the most inclusive size range of bras on the market, Harrington said the claim was easily disprovable. Brands like Triumph, Wacoal, Lane Bryant, Playful Promises, Panache, and more offered equally large or even bigger size ranges. So why didn’t they sound the horn about it?

“I don’t know if it has occurred to other brands to center their marketing on [size inclusion],” Harrington said. “It was the first time I personally heard of a [lingerie] marketing campaign where that was the focus. I don’t think it would have dawned on these other brands to do that. Part of that is in our current time, there is a sense that a size range is never big enough, so some brands [feel] guarded discussing size range.”

There may be fear, she said, that customers will call them out for not making certain sizes, so companies “see that conversation around size as more of a minefield than an asset.”

Moreover, some customers may take issue when they get the impression that companies have wrongfully portrayed themselves as trailblazers of inclusion. In 2016, for example, Naja Lingerie, of which actress Gina Rodriguez is a co-partner, launched its #NudeForAll line featuring undergarments in seven skin tones. The marketing campaign led to glowing headlines such as “Gina Rodriguez’s Naja Lingerie Is Redefining the Term Nude” and “Naja Lingerie Is Making ‘Nude For All’ Underwear a Reality.” Those unfamiliar with the market may have assumed that Naja was a pioneer of the trend, when brands such as Nubian Skin had already put in the groundwork to expand the lingerie world’s definition of nude.

Harrington warns consumers to be cautious of lingerie brands that claim to be trailblazers. Don’t take a brand’s word for it if it claims to make be more inclusive than the competition or to make every bra size, she said.

“If it’s a lingerie brand and they say they’re the first to do something or they’re doing it more than anyone else is, immediately be skeptical,” she said. “The likelihood of anyone being the first ever to do something in lingerie is very, very slim, especially if they’re a new or smaller brand.”

The “Fenty effect” and all the brands that came before

When Fenty Beauty debuted in fall 2017, the praise was overwhelming, but some fans pointed out that no trans women were used in its campaign. In response to that oversight, Rihanna said that she would not use trans women as a gimmick.

“I don’t think it’s fair that a trans woman, or man, be used as a convenient marketing tool!” she said on Instagram. “Too often do I see companies doing this to trans and black women alike! There’s always just that one spot in the campaign for the token ‘we look mad diverse’ girl/guy! It’s sad!”

Model Winnie Harlow walking the runway at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret holiday fashion show.
Model Winnie Harlow, who has the skin condition vitiligo, has appeared in ads for CoverGirl as well as in the 2018 Victoria’s Secret holiday fashion show.
ABC via Getty Images

Likely because Fenty Beauty made a point to serve women traditionally underserved by the cosmetics industry — women with dark skin — the lack of trans women in its ad campaign never ballooned into a huge controversy. But as Fenty was lauded in the press for being radically inclusive, brands that had been serving women of color for years, such as Iman Cosmetics and Fashion Fair, were overlooked. Fenty was widely portrayed as a makeup industry disruptor, although other cosmetics brands, including MAC, Bobbi Brown, Makeup Forever, Nars, and Lancôme, had already offered inclusive foundation ranges.

Makeup artist Zarielle Washington says that consumers with dark skin, especially globally, need more cosmetics options. But she says she hopes inclusion isn’t just a lucrative marketing trend. Still, she’s noticed that when one company markets itself as inclusive, others follow suit. Kylie Cosmetics, for instance, released a 30-shade foundation range after Fenty’s debut. On the other hand, when brands fail to be inclusive, they get called out for it, such as when Tarte released a range of makeup in January that appeared to cater almost exclusively to people with pale skin.

“We have millennials and a society that’s more interested in putting their money into brands that resonate with them personally,” Washington said. “It’s not just about the product; it’s all about people and their personal choices and their lifestyles. I do feel like the industry is being more receptive to inclusion, and that’s also translating into dollars.”

Washington pointed out that CoverGirl featured model Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, in its ads. (Victoria’s Secret also included her in its 2018 fashion show.) Fenty Beauty included shades so light that people with albinism could wear the foundation, and globally, cosmetics brands have started to cater to men who wear makeup. These may all be efforts by companies to get across the idea that they’re better at inclusion than the competition. Washington, however, mostly welcomes the trend.

“I think people who before felt ostracized are now being made to feel comfortable,” she said. “Actually, I love that. It helps people see things from a different perspective.”

But how can customers tell if a company really is better at inclusion than others or is using the trend toward inclusion to win cool points and, inevitably, dollars? Washington advises consumers to keep an eye on a company’s social media to see the issues it highlights, and if inclusion doesn’t seem to be part of it, she pointed out that it’s never been easier for a customer to give feedback to a company on a public forum like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

“Every time you make a purchase, you’re casting a vote; you’re voicing how strongly you feel about the company or their ethics and what they stand behind,” she said.

Inclusion may not always be just a marketing trend

Singer and beauty mogul Rihanna with a customer during Fenty Beauty’s one-year anniversary event.
Rihanna with a client during Fenty Beauty’s one-year anniversary event.
Caroline McCredie/Getty Images for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna

While concern grows that companies are embracing inclusion for profit, Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said that advances in manufacturing and technology have allowed businesses to make products with a wider range of customers in mind.

“Online marketing allows for more ‘long tail’ service – i.e., people who do not represent a significant proportion of the overall population and have special requirements, because the inventory can be kept in central warehouses and shipped out as needed,” Kahn explained.

Prior to the digital age, companies had to rely on the products they could fit on a counter or on the sales floor. That meant they limited how much makeup they displayed or the range of sizes on clothing racks.

“Keeping every size in stock was infeasible,” Kahn said. “It’s part of the reason Bonobos started as a showroom or guideshop with subsequent purchasing or ordering online. That way, they could keep a large selection of sizes in the physical showroom but not have to keep all of them in stock in the store, which would be a logistical nightmare.”

But she does acknowledge that some brands simply thought it best for their image to have “their clothing to only be worn by certain-size people.” This is called “brand positioning.” As millennials are poised to become the group with the most spending power, however, brand positioning is shifting from the fantasy espoused by companies like Victoria’s Secret to products made for “real people.” Authenticity, and thus inclusion, is now perceived to be the most marketable.

“Advertising used to be more ‘aspirational,’ and people looked to brands to show what people hoped they could be,” Kahn said. “But the younger generation is much more accepting of all kinds of diversity — and that brands are embracing all of these different ideas and allowing people to accept who they are is definitely a selling point.”

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