Following the launch of her bold new brand campaign encouraging consumers to ditch fast fashion, Rent the Runway Senior Vice President of Brand Marketing Jess Burns talks openly about the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, the trends of 2022. in fashion and retail and brand vision to transform the industry: one rental at a time.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landfills collect 11.3 million tons of textiles each year, making up about 7.7% of the total landfill space of municipal solid waste. At the same time, the clothing and apparel production rate continues to skyrocket. On a mission to stop this cycle of waste is the fashion rental company signed Rent the Runway (DTC) directed to the consumer.
Last week, the brand unveiled its new “Fast Fashion Free” campaign, featuring bold messages and imagery developed by YummyColours creatives encouraging consumers to abandon unsustainable fashion in favor of designer rental clothing. The campaign also includes a partnership between the company’s New York headquarters and Green Textiles through which consumers can recycle wearable fast fashion that will then be recycled to create insulation. But the brand says this is just the beginning.
Here, the company’s senior vice president of brand marketing, Jess Burns, talks about cheeky marketing, trends in 2022, and why she believes the future of fashion is rented, not bought.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the new Fast Fashion Free campaign.
This campaign is really about achieving our goal. Many brands are quick to try to figure out where they should focus on purpose … or lean on some flash-in-the-pan social impact program because [they think] it will make them more authentic. But this is really at the heart of what we do. This campaign is not just an ephemeral strategy: this message is a central fiber and a fulcrum of our business. And while we think about communicating the added value of Rent the Runway, being a company more focused on sustainability is a key consideration for us, but also for customers looking to re-evaluate the brands they choose to invest in.
We have decided to launch this campaign [this month] because it was a very timely strategy, given that everyone is re-evaluating their own behaviors and bad habits [at the start of the new year]. While we think consumers are more conscientious during this time, we felt it was really appropriate to introduce Rent the Runway as a way for customers to dress in a way that is … healthier for the environment.
The campaign was intentionally provocative and you’ll see a lot more from Rent the Runway. We want to be very clear about what we stand for and we want to be a little stronger about how we do it. With this campaign [we wanted to emphasize that] fast fashion is garbage. It’s ending up in landfills. It is time for people to reconsider their habits when shopping for fast fashion. We were also very intent on the media channels we chose to invest in. We have worked with Seen Media and LinkNYC [to launch] activations away from home (OOH) – [including] both wild ads and digital billboards just outside fast fashion retailers. We want to stop people at the last moment of truth before they walk into a fast fashion retailer e [encourage them to instead consider] invest in a Rent the Runway subscription.
What is the brand’s vision of sustainability, written big? How are you planning to change behavior more broadly?
Sustainability is at the heart of our mission, our business model and our financial model. [We want to educate consumers that] increasing the number of times the clothes in our closet e [from Rent the Runway’s] the cloud is worn improves the positive environmental impact and financial results.
Earlier this year, we invested in a study called the Life Cycle Assessment study, and what we learned is that when a customer rents a garment from our closet in the cloud, the result is net environmental savings compared to buying clothes … and those are net environmental savings through water use, energy use and CO2 emissions. You know, when you look at other retailers, they kind of face a sustainability or social impact program. Our business was built around this. Right now we are able to communicate this with a lot of confidence: we are one of the very few players in this industry that tells people to buy less, but they can actually wear more. This is what we think is a really exciting solution for fast fashion. Our Chief Executive Jen Hyman said, “We exist to put fast fashion out of business.” Before Rent the Runway, there weren’t many solutions to really fight it.
Through many studies we’ve done, we’ve learned that 89% of our subscribers say they buy fewer clothes overall [since joining Rent the Runway]. 83% in particular say they buy less fast fashion when they have a subscription to Rent the Runway. When we reduce the value of Rent the Runway to millions of women, [these statistics] they will really like it.
We will publish our sustainability goals in March … so people will truly understand what we are striving for. We are one of the very few players who are very outspoken and I think it is very fair and clear about what we actually mean when we say we are a more sustainable company. I think we’re really setting the tone for the industry in general.
The fashion sustainability movement appears to be still in its infancy, but we are seeing more and more brands and retailers aiming for and promoting sustainability, such as Levi’s “Buy Better, Wear Longer” initiative. How does Rent the Runway intend to carve out a competitive advantage and grow its business?
The industry as a whole has a lot of work to do. One of the data that always surprises me is that if our industry remains as it is without change, it is estimated that 115 million tons of clothing will be in a landfill by 2050. [But] I’m encouraged that more retailers and more fashion and apparel brands are starting to reexamine how more sustainable businesses can be.
We were one of the first players in space to really understand this. The work for us to do is really to continue to scale the importance of renting. There is more work to be done there. As for competing with other players entering this space, we’ve been doing so for 13 years, between building operations around our rental business and building relationships with over 750 designers. We’ve been doing this for a while now … I hope so [other players in the space] would look to us for some of the ways we’ve been able to make it relevant to customers … and we’ve done it successfully.
Tell me about the impact the pandemic has had on your business. It has been widely reported that fashion and retail players, including Rent the Runway, have struggled in the face of house orders and declining social activity. How did you face these challenges and what does 2022 look like from your point of view?
Many consumer behaviors changed during Covid, but we actually saw them as beneficial to our business.
Obviously, customers are having more sustainability-conscious conversations and want to live sustainably … so Rent the Runway offers them a valuable solution. Many other trends we’ve seen involve access versus ownership. Consider other business models like Airbnb or Spotify – these business models continue to be more important to customers. We are very much aligned with this.
Another key trend we’ve seen during the pandemic is a focus on greater financial savings and a business model like ours [enables consumers to] get, over the course of a year, thousands upon thousands of dollars of value from a subscription which is a pretty low monthly investment. Hence, it’s just a smarter choice. [The overarching] the trend is to see customers making smarter decisions due to the uncertainty and volatility out there right now. [Another] the really encouraging thing for our business is the continued growth of e-commerce and the people who continue to spend their money online. All [of these] Trends are really powerful favorable winds in favor of the people who support Rent the Runway’s Closet in the Cloud.
We can expect to become more relevant over the course of the year as the world continues to open up. [A misconception we want to dismantle is that] Rent the Runway’s Closet in the Cloud is not about dressing up for special occasions, but about dressing up for every day, [whether it’s] wear a really cool top during your work Zoom call or … decide to invest in more loungewear through our subscription platform.
When it comes to downsizing the importance of Rent the Runway and making it more tangible for millions of women, the focus is on our subscription business. We want to hijack this buying mindset … and change customer behavior into a more rental mindset. [Right now], it’s getting colder and when women think, “Oh, this is a new season, I need a lot of new coats.” It’s really about getting into that thought process and getting [every woman] think of a fashion subscription as a solution for when you need clothing for the new seasons and for big and small moments. We are excited to solve this challenge over the next couple of years as we continue to invest in brand marketing. We are a disruptive brand and will continue to invest in disruptive marketing to make sure customers are aware of renting as a solution.
Going beyond the company’s main focus on sustainability, how is Rent the Runway focused on innovation right now?
We are evolving the end-to-end experience for our customers … to make it easier and even more fun to choose garments on Rent the Runway but also … from a [supply chain and logistics] prospect.
We are evolving ways for you to leave your bosses. We are developing ways to have them picked up at your home. We have already launched home collection where you can not only choose from all 750 designers and receive more pieces monthly, but also have them collected. We’re thinking about the end-to-end experience and making sure it’s lean, enjoyable, and a more fun shopping experience than traditional DTC ecommerce.
From a brand marketing perspective, what’s your vision for 2022 and beyond?
You will see more of us out there. It is really exciting to think about how to clearly communicate our value proposition for the next year, not only when it comes to sustainability, even if this is a central goal, but also to show customers the value and how much more fun Rent is. the Runway for dressing up every day. We are investing in the complete funnel [initiatives].
You will continue to see more brand marketing campaigns over the next year. We’ll be thinking about how to evolve our brand strategy to make this Closet in the Cloud subscription more relevant to millions of women out there. We will invest and test the channels we can use to most effectively reach our target customer where they are. This sustainability campaign is truly setting the tone for how we want to communicate to customers in the future.
For more information, sign up for The Drum’s daily American newsletter here.