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Telegraphing the booming potency of ethical brand initiatives but also a critical return to credibility for an industry in crisis, Choose Love – the retail wing of U.K.-based NGO Help Refugees, where visitors buy real items for refugees including gloves, blankets, life jackets and nappies – has already surpassed all expectations by racking up sales of £1.4m ($1.77m). That’s put it on track to double last year’s revenue with a £1.5m pay day by Christmas Eve, when the two physical stores in London and New York will retire for at least another year.
This might be the season of goodwill but such a surge in figures is no small feat considering the body blow the charity sector took earlier this year as a result of the Oxfam Haiti scandal, leaving 60% of people mistrustful of charitable organizations in general, compounded by a report by the British government suggesting that trust has been plateauing since 2016, courtesy of a lack of transparency. Giving to charity, it would seem, had become a risky business. So how did Help Refugees, which now supports 80 projects across Europe and the Middle East, use Choose Love to get it so right?
Component one is a suite of founders with as much media savvy as honorable intentions. Help Refugees was established in 2015 by three woman with zero charity (or retail) experience – writer/broadcaster/presenters Dawn O’Porter and Lliana Bird plus Josie Naughton, now it’s CEO, who had been a PA in British band Cold Play’s management team, formerly a licensing executive for TV production company Endemol. The intention was as grass roots as it gets – to raise some funds, get a van and go to Calais with supplies for those in the infamous Jungle camp. Live Aid it was not.
But the donations mushroomed, as did the celebrity endorsements and the most everyday of things – an Amazon wish-list – that exploded with well-wisher’s additions became the genesis for the Choose Love shops in London and New York. Built in collaboration with British creative collective, Glimpse, they opened on Black Friday (both years) – broadcasting their mission to reroute what’s becoming a frighteningly standard consumerist frenzy.
As mentioned, their wider pop cultural acumen was a game-changer and far beyond their celebrity black books: “My skills working with a global band with merchandise have been very translatable,” says Naughton, whose understanding of social media and particularly the nuances of a world in which images are digitally distributed, devoured and either acted or dismissed in nanoseconds has paid dividends in making the stores a mainstream success.
For instance, the
“I think it resonated because it’s within peoples own experiences, it’s a relatable visual. People need to see the horror of the situation at times of course but it’s about where you show those images and express that horror. It’s important to see positive images too because psychologically when you see something so awful it can make you feel disempowered, helpless. People want to do good but don’t know how. The positive shots affirm the value of getting involved and the store makes it accessible; we knew that to make a successful campaign we had to appeal to people that wouldn’t ordinarily be particularly interested.”
Mastering the very delicate balancing act between awareness and the potential alienation of politicization: “Obviously the refugee crisis is an extremely complex and political business in many ways but there’s nothing confusing or political when you’re considering a child having nowhere to sleep . These products really talk to that sentiment.”
There was also the masterstroke of resurrecting British designer Katherine Hamnett’s archetypal slogan t-shirt. Hamnett was the high priestess of the original political 1980’s statement tees – a formidable part of the era’s anti-capitalist pop culture push-back.
Let’s not forget that the Choose Life t-shirt was famously adopted by Wham! (George Michael, of course, latterly going on to be something of a revolutionary himself) and referenced again in the film Trainspotting in which lead character Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ monologue taps into the spiritual vacuum incubated by an ultra-consumerist society.
“People are becoming more frustrated by consumerism at this time of the year, we wanted to create an alternative. The dopamine hit you get when you buy something seems to be even higher when it’s a charity .” says Naughton. There’s also this year’s collaboration with legendary ultra-stealth street artist Banksy, who’s donated a sculpture to the London store for a ‘guess-the-weight’ raffle. Just £2 a guess. So far, so deliberately school fair.
The team’s media smarts have also piled into a conscious divorcing of the work Help Refugees does as a hands-on aid organization and the consumer-facing side of the business, a mark of respect to the people and inconceivably hard circumstances with which it’s working. “We not branding people,” says Naughton. “We don’t believe in having visibility on the ground in that way – there’s no stickers on jackets or bags with our name on them.”
Secondly, the premise of the store is beautifully simple. Visitors shop as in any other store (both spaces are attractive-looking boutiques), with items being both genuine practical necessities but also highly emotionally charged by virtue of their ordinariness, so heartbreakingly relatable in their humanity. There’s a mother and baby bundle that would melt even the coldest heart. “All the items are things that are needed right now, they’ve not been engineered to elicit the most empathy but it’s impossible to separate the two. The key thing is that it’s very tangible, people can see where their money is going,” says Naughton.
There’s also an option to buy services or amenities like meals or accommodation for a family for month. Prices range from £3 ($4) for supplying a hot shower to £10 ($13) for a child’s coat – entry level spends that’s made the store as accessible to teenagers as their parents – to £599 ($756) to buy the entire shop, i.e. one of each of the items.
At the time of writing, 194 people globally have done just that, a figure Naughton says has both pleasantly surprised her and, “made me realize that we’re living in a much less insular society than you’d think.” Data from the e-commerce store reveals that it’s a relatively young group driving sales (mostly 25-45-year-olds) and global. So far, it’s sold to people in 61 countries, with the U.K., US, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Australia leading the way.
The bonus of a match fund has also boosted the bottom line; when the tills hit £400k ($505k) the sum was matched by The
It’s not the only charitable pop-up with breaking new ground. Last July American artist Miranda July and British art group Artangel launched an interfaith charity store at Selfridges department store, while
What’s next? Possibly pop-ups in new locations next year, definitely more bundles of products after the runaway success of the ‘buy-the-store’ concept and maybe even at other times of the year such as a summer festival. Then again, it may be kept to the inimitable wonder of Christmas: “At the moment we won’t go past Christmas,” says Naughton “because there’s a sense of the magic spell being broken”.
December 22, 2018 at 04:15AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs