The Power of the Brand
Kenneth Cole has combined instinct with business savvy to understand the consumer’s wants and needs, by putting himself "in their shoes" for many years. He has built and sustained a unique level of brand integrity, by consistently speaking to a loyal customer about what they look like on the outside, as well as who they are on the inside.
In this speech, Mr. Cole gives advice on how executives might connect with their desired audience in a more meaningful and sustainable manner.
Mr Cole also speaks about how in a world where knowledge and information flows infinitely everywhere simultaneously, that the consumers look for individual editors to interpret, process and navigate it for them. These processors are usually the ones with a history and integrity for communicating a consistent message and/or point of view (lifestyle or otherwise) over a period of time. To the degree they are reliable, and only for as long as they are, Brands are those processors.
Interdependence of Business and Community Engagement
Kenneth Cole believes that business and community service are interdependent. He understands the need for businesses to make a difference, to use their business platforms to inspire positive social change and to contribute to the communities where they do business. As a renowned American designer and humanitarian, Kenneth Cole believes that “it is great to be known for your shoes. It is even better to be recognized for your soul.” Known for employing messages of social responsibility in the design and marketing of his products and for supporting organizations addressing social issues, he has long been committed to social activism and inspiring others to make a difference. Providing examples of ways his company has reached out over the years, including establishing the AWEARNESS Fund which supports service and volunteerism with a specific focus on AIDS and other public health issues, Mr. Cole discusses extraordinary opportunities for companies to differentiate themselves from their competition, strengthen their brand and make an impact that makes a difference. He encourages business leaders to make what they do relevant and meaningful, because at the end of the day, he believes that this is the most important issue on which they will be judged.
The Marriage of Business with Social Entrepreneurship
Long before the concept came into fashion, Kenneth Cole has been applying his business and entrepreneurial skills to create social change. He is often credited with being the original social entrepreneur. He believes that there is a growing revolution fundamentally changing the way society organizes itself and the way we approach social problems. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the “change agents” that inspire the necessary transformations and advance sustainable solutions that promote positive change for our communities. Mr. Cole explains how the needs of business and community are inter-dependent and inter-connected with each needing each other not just to thrive, but in fact to survive. He points out how companies can serve the mandates of their various stakeholders while at the same time “do well by doing good”.
A business that began over 25 years ago out of the back of a 40-foot trailer, Kenneth Cole Productions has risen to the top of American fashion at lightning speed and set the standards for others to meet. Kenneth Cole Productions is one of the most widely revered and consistently focused fashion companies with over 5,500 global points of distribution in 59 countries, including nearly 100 Kenneth Cole domestic retail stores and 75 internationally.
With retail sales in excess of one and a half billion dollars, the company has five lifestyle brands: Kenneth Cole New York; Reaction Kenneth Cole; Le Tigre; Unlisted; and Gentle Souls and there are currently 30 licensees that cover 71 dual gender and multi-brand product categories and 26 product categories from swimwear to kidswear to fragrance. Mr. Cole is the ultimate driving force behind all the brands and the company’s creative director in all areas from design to marketing.
Sometimes politically ironic and irreverent but always socially conscious and relevant, Mr. Cole’s advertising has touched on everything from gun control and cloning to abortion and AIDS. He believes that “To be aware is more important than what you wear” and abides by two mantras: “What we stand for is more important that what we stand in” and “We may not heal the world, but we hope to be an accessory.”
Mr. Cole has received numerous awards over the years, both as a designer and humanitarian. Most recently he received the Humanitarian Award from the Fashion Group International in 2009 and the Theodore Roosevelt Award for Corporate Social Responsibility from the Legal Aid Society, as well as the first ever Humanitarian Designer Award during the Islands of the World Fashion Week in 2008. He has also been named Man of the Year by Footwear News and Humanitarian of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Mr. Cole was also nominated Menswear Designer of the Year by the CFDA and has received the Fashion Award of the Year from New York Magazine and the Achievement Award from the Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball.
Blending Business Acumen with Social Action
There is certainly truth to the old cliché, “you can do well by doing good”. For Kenneth Cole “doing good” has meant being on the frontline of fashion trends and AIDS awareness. His company’s advertising campaigns, largely written and entirely directed by Cole, have solidified the brand not only as fashion-forward, but also socially conscious and relevant. Many people recognize the famous, “Regardless of the right to bear arms, we in no way condone the right to bare feet” while others celebrate the timely, “Not Voting Is So Last Season.” He has built a global fashion empire with more than 175 retail stores worldwide and has made it his business to fuse fashion with social action by supporting worthy philanthropic causes.
Mr. Cole has used his business platforms to raise awareness about important issues and to inspire others to become change agents and to seek to make a difference in the world. His book AWEARNESS: Inspiring Stories to Make A Difference is a compilation of essays by prominent individuals about how they have made a difference in the world with the goal of inspiring others to become social entrepreneurs and change agents. Mr. Cole has also partnered with Columbia University to develop the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program, a groundbreaking initiative to empower Columbia undergraduates with the necessary skills to become effective agents of change. The program will help prepare students to make meaningful, sustainable change in their communities, while developing a new generation of social entrepreneurs and community leaders.
As Chairman of The Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR), the largest not-for-profit AIDS research foundation, and a Founding Board member to the homeless organization HELP USA, the nation’s leading provider of housing and jobs to the homeless, Mr. Cole has made it his business to fuse fashion with social action. Mr. Cole is also a Board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and The Sundance Institute.