It’s a new era for fashion and beauty ads. Spurred in part by a renewed energy around female empowerment and by the role social media plays in their lives, consumers appear to crave—and increasingly demand—authenticity from the images used to sell them clothing and makeup.
Brands often hear from shoppers when their campaigns lack diversity; celebrities sometimes speak out when they feel a photo of them has been overly manipulated. Meanwhile, Target’s unretouched swimwear ads continue to be lauded; designers such as Diane von Furstenberg and Rebecca Minkoff have eschewed professional models altogether for their recent lookbooks and ads, instead highlighting a diverse crew of “real” women.
Still, diversity for diversity’s sake—if not executed in a way that feels genuine and cogent—can come off as tokenism. In order to achieve authenticity, many retailers are looking at a different talent pool to cast their ads: their own employees. Not only are they relatable to customers, but they can serve a larger purpose as true brand evangelists. Who knows the company better than someone already on the payroll?
The strategy may feel fairly new in some industries, but it actually dates back to the mid-20th century. A good example is how Perdue—yes, purveyor of chicken—famously put its founder, Frank Perdue, in front of the camera to help personalize and sell product starting in the 1960s.
What’s different about using this strategy now, primarily in the fashion and beauty space, is that instead of just letting the consumer see the man behind the curtain, potential shoppers are seeing people who look like them using the products they might buy, turning a more traditional approach to advertising on its head.
Vintage-inspired retailer ModCloth was an early fashion pioneer of this idea: In 2015, it debuted a digital swimwear campaign featuring a diverse group of its own employees, wearing a mix of polka-dot bikinis and one-pieces in a range of sizes.
“The shoot was in response to the press surrounding the inclusion of Robyn Lawley in the 2015 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue,” Nicole Haase, ModCloth’s VP of Merchandising, tells Glamour. “We wanted to provide a counterpoint because we not only had product that we felt so proud of, we wanted women to see the photos and feel good. What better way to solidify our commitment to inclusivity by wearing our swimsuits and showing them in a range of sizes?” According to the company, the campaign helped lift sales—not just for its plus swimsuits, but for all sizes. (Sales of swimsuits jumped by over 50 percent, a ModCloth rep told Glamour, while online visits to the swimwear section of ModCloth.com reportedly jumped by over 60 percent.)
ModCloth has continued to use its staff both in ads and on its Instagram feed. On the latter, it frequently posts photos of employees modeling new product so customers can get a better idea of the look and fit of their offerings. (Shopbop and Madewell have also employed a similar social strategy.) “It’s an authentic way to connect with our customer,” Haase says. “As merchants, if we don’t believe in the product that we are assorting, then why would we think anyone would buy it?”