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I received a slightly alarming letter last week, which was copied to many national newspaper editors and politicians. It accused me of exploiting prison labour and of unfairly paying prison workers. Alarm bells rang in the office, as you can imagine.
There’s a back story to this accusation: a few years ago, my company started to work with Blue Sky Inside, a charity that works primarily with female offenders to reduce the cycle of reoffending. It helps prisoners to develop skills, to earn respect and money and supports them on their release as this can have a transformational effect on their lives and can reduce the risk of them reoffending.
As part of this initiative, we now make some of our dustbags (the protective cloth bags our handbags come in) at Bronzefield prison in Surrey. We pay a premium above the price we pay to our normal supplier and, over the past three years, it has given us real pleasure to know that we might be helping in some small way.
To date, however, we haven’t talked about this project publicly. Partly because I don’t think you always need to shout about the things you do but, if I am being honest, also because I wondered how our customers may feel about it from a “brand” perspective.
I was sitting on the fence.
Then the accusatory, and sadly misinformed, letter arrived and sitting on the fence was no longer an option. So I would like to say how proud I am to be part of this project and how much I admire all the people who have made it happen.
However, the episode also made me ponder the idea of a “brand”. Why was I concerned that my customers would find this unpalatable? Surely, a truly lovely, luxurious experience is enhanced by the knowledge that it may at some level be helping someone else? And what does the word “brand” actually mean in today’s world? Maybe, instead of talking in terms of “brands”, we should talk about “behaviours”? If we companies worried more about our “behaviour” than our “brand”, it might be more authentic and convincing.
I thought about it from a customer’s perspective, too. Many companies show a passionate and intriguing commitment to their craft and their history but too often I find this is missing and, as a consequence, sometimes I find that I no longer want to be “typed” by a particular brand. As an example, I recently had my watch stolen. It was a well-known luxury brand, albeit a 1960s version, but despite the insurer’s payout, I still can’t settle on what to replace it with. The thing is, I want to be myself, no longer one of a “tribe”. Oscar Wilde’s line, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” sums it up rather more eloquently.
For next season, I have come up with another approach, designing a range of handbags covered with the logos of fast-moving consumer goods: Coco Pops, Frosties’ “Tony the Tiger” and Daz are all strong “brands” all right but there is, I think, an irony in having the name of a cereal packet or soap powder, made from the most exquisite skins, emblazoned on the bag in place of a luxury brand. Maybe it’s a case of irony or nothing going forward – with a touch of good thrown in too.
Anya Hindmarch is founder and chief creative officer of her eponymous accessories brand