Normally, I’m not an advocate of politics spilling into business, nor I do believe that brand activism is a typically a sincere practice. I’ve gone on record as a fierce detractor of startups, brands, and agencies who hop on a social justice bandwagon while denying equality through employment within their own walls. Say “culture fit” three times, as fast as you can.
Cotton Bureau’s founders are a rare case of personal beliefs intersecting capitalistic opportunity. Watching Jay Fanelli fired up about a housing project being gutted for a larger Whole Foods in their homeland of Pittsburgh, really struck me. Often, folks talk the talk until silence can benefit them. And well, who wouldn’t want easier access to vegan sausage or the free-est of range eggs? Nathan Peretic, the more introverted of the two partners is equally passionate about matters of social justice.
They’ve sold t-shirts for Pod Save America, a podcast run by former Obama aides and speechwriters. And the investigative website ProPublica commissioned a “We’re not shutting up”shirt in response to Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s statement that the media should keep quiet.
One of the best sellers was a t-shirt with the word “Resist” emblazoned on the hat of a character resembling a displeased Smokey Bear.
That t-shirt — titled “Only You Can Prevent Alt Facts” — will benefit national parks, though it’s not affiliated with any federal agency. So far, they’ve sold over 9,000 of that one.
It is through this lens that I evaluate Cotton Bureau’s heavy liberalism. As someone who is moderate and apolitical enough to avoid daily Twitter outrage, I’ll admit that the fire by which they pursue matters of public policy is often uncomfortable to me. But when authenticity and drive translates to their growing success, few can hold their positions against them. Not even whenyou’re against them. It seems that the popular vote is on Cotton Bureau’s side:
“The most t-shirts we’ve packed in a short amount of time is 15,000. It’s going to be about 50,000 over the next three or four weeks,” Fanelli says. “We’re not only all hands on deck; we’re asking anybody who has a brother or boyfriend or coworker who has a few hours to spare to help get these orders out.”
In Cotton Bureau’s small warehouse space next to the printing press, Nate Peretic’s brother, Joel, sorts through a pile of packaged Smokey shirts ready to ship to various places — everywhere from Fairfield, Ohio to Brooklyn and France.
Their most recent hits: “Whine about it” by BuzzFeed, “Only You Can Prevent Alt Facts“, “Friend of the Pod” and “Pod Save America“, “We’re Not Shutting Up” by ProPublica”, “Protect. Resist.”, “She Persisted“, “Country Over Party“, “Repeal and Go…Yourself“, and “The Signal.”
I marvel at their numbers, both sales and conversion rates (7+% in February). Even more so, I applaud how well they’ve maintained visual consistency across each of their designs. Each subsequent hit of a t-shirt becomes another statement for the Cotton Bureau brand. In the t-shirt design industry, this is rare.
And they are not slowing down. If I was consulting a brand (including the ones I remain closely aligned with), I’d suggest avoiding activism. This, especially if it isn’t in the brand’s DNA. But these guys and gals are different, they’re more than tweets and anecdotes. They are outfitting the resistance and selling shirts by the thousand.
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