Jennifer Zanfardino

Behind the Curtain

Even though I’ve yet to purchase a piece of clothing from NastyGal, I can’t help but tell anyone who will listen about the brand.

It’s been this way since I heard Sophia Amorusa, founder of NastyGal, speak at Innovation Uncensored. I’ve since read her book, #GirlBoss, and found myself wanting to tell her story.

Going on the name alone— NastyGal— I would have insisted that I couldn’t relate and therefore had no reason to support the brand. But learning how she built a $100 million dollar company by being herself and creating a business that is a reflection of her—well that was something I loved. This community college dropout, got her start selling vintage clothing on eBay, an operation which quickly outgrew her step-aunt’s cottage.

The company name is an homage to Betty Davis’ 1975 album. Like the singer, who was married briefly to Miles Davis, Sophia had a confidence and swagger that propelled her success.

“I thought I was just picking a name for an eBay store, but it turned out that I was actually infusing the entire brand with not only my spirit, but the spirit of this incredible woman,” Sophia said in her book. Brands’ backstories are important, especially when it comes to building a relationship with your customers.

I like brands better when they’re not monolithic, anonymous experiences. I like knowing why someone started a company and what they’re out to achieve. I like understanding their story because it allows me to make a decision about whether or not I want to contribute to helping them achieve their goals.

Once upon a time customers who purchased a hammer spoke to Mr. Rickles who owned the local hardware store. When they bought cookies they chatted with Mrs. Fields who owned the bakery. We had easy access to the context that helped us understand why Mr. Rickles opened a hardware store instead of a pet shop, and why Mrs. Fields made cookies instead of pies. If they liked those reasons and the service, they would show their support by frequenting the location. Then businesses got bigger, faceless—anonymous.

As consumers, we lost that context. We were kept at arms length and left to tell our own stories about why companies or products existed as they did.

Listen, I don’t need to know everyone at every brand. I can drink Coke simply because I find it surprisingly refreshing. But sometimes that open door to the people behind the brand is that extra nudge to make people embrace a company.

The advent of the Internet and more brands using social media has made it possible for us to once again get context about a product, service or organization. People are accessible and you can see the wizard behind the curtain. And I think this is awesome – and really, really important—for brands.

For example, I love that I know a bit about Jenna Lyons. I appreciate that she and other J.Crew employees give us a glimpse into their lives in some of their catalogs. I love that I know a version of her story, which helps me understand the styles I see in the catalog.

I think the same is true for companies such as Amazon or Virgin. By knowing who Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are and what they’ve set out to achieve, Amazon and Virgin have context.

They’re not these anonymous institutions, but the manifestation of a vision. And I can look at their brands and say, yes, I want to cheer you on, help you build your vision and tell your story.