Sliding Door Moments and the Rise of Inclusive Brands

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Illustration by Bryan Condra
Hero image
Illustration by Bryan Condra

Around the same awkward age, I recall the beginning of a downward spiral in self-confidence. Year-round sports participation served as a counterweight to appearance-focused obsessions. But reading “women’s magazines” contributed to growing feelings of unworthiness.

I developed a problematic relationship with food and disavowed glossy magazines forever in the process of recovery. All this despite my privilege as a white and, looking back on it, relatively thin girl. What if my skin was darker or my body larger — how would I feel then? And what if I didn’t have the financial or other means to participate in sports?

Forged in my anger was an intolerance for the injustice of exclusion. For the sidelining of women of color, people who are not stick thin, and anyone who doesn’t “fit,” which is how I often felt. The world’s an ugly place when the standard of beauty is so narrow.

A model wearing clothing from Rihanna's Savage X Fenty fashion show.
Image credit: GETTY IMAGES + ALBERT URSO
A model wearing clothing from Rihanna's Savage X Fenty fashion show.
Image credit: GETTY IMAGES + ALBERT URSO

My father’s remarkable career trajectory — janitor to Vice President —changed my family’s access and relationship to brands. One day in middle school, I wore a fresh, peach Champion sweatshirt and peach Champion socks. Pretty sweet, until a classmate remarked with resentment, “You must be rich.” In no way did this make me feel good. What if the tables were turned?

In the world of brand design, conventional wisdom says that you’re better off targeting a small, specific audience. The idea is that if you try to be everything to everyone, you’re nothing to anyone. But there’s another way of looking at this. Inclusivity demands more of us. Stronger stances. Deeper stories. No faking. It asks us to confront cognitive biases, to consciously avoid and help destroy stereotypes and to expand representation. All while doubling down on human truths that unite us.

Yes, brands still often restrict associated ideals to those who can afford them or fit into an on-brand box. But today, more and more, that doesn’t fly. Inclusivity is rising.

Of course, the internet detonated walls between brands and people, opening constant two-way communication. Brands are now publicly subject to feedback of all kinds. They can choose to respond by walking through sliding doors, or not. And we’re all there to see which way they go.

Think of Victoria’s Secret, which clings to an exclusive “fantasy.” Even as analysts called it broken following an earnings report earlier this year. And even as the CEO stepped down after comments by the parent company CMO about there being no place for trans or plus-size women in the struggling brand. But it’s against a tide of inclusive upstarts.

The field includes a new line from Rhianna that’s making big waves, along with ThirdLove, which straight-up called out Victoria’s Secret with a full-page ad in The New York Times, and then there’s Nunude, which teamed up with Love Disfigure to organize a stripped-down protest outside a Victoria’s Secret storefront in London.

Everything changes when we make a habit of walking through sliding doors, whether toward partners, family, friends, or even people we don’t know. This goes for humans, and for brands.

Exclusion is what happens when we turn away. It used to be the whole point of branding — a corporate means of elevation beyond commodity. The ability to buy into a brand has long meant gaining access to a club, an achievement of status and, strikingly, separation from others.

Photo of a pink Champion brand sweater on a white background.
Back in the late 80’s, in my working-class hometown, this Champion sweatshirt was the equivalent of runway chic. Honestly, I wish I still had it. Image credit: Urban Outfitters
Photo of a pink Champion brand sweater on a white background.
Back in the late 80’s, in my working-class hometown, this Champion sweatshirt was the equivalent of runway chic. Honestly, I wish I still had it. Image credit: Urban Outfitters
With humor and passion, Jameela Jamil, star of “The Good Place,” rails against insane beauty ideals on Instagram. Via her i_weigh account, she welcomes all of us to redefine our weight in terms of dreams, quirks, personality, who we are and all we offer as multidimensional humans. So refreshing.
Inclusivity demands more of us. Stronger stances. Deeper stories. No faking.

And now I have an incredible autistic daughter, about whom I’ve written previously. She beautifully and instinctively defies convention at just about every turn. With gifts and challenges outside the average, she compels me to joyfully embrace difference in a whole new way — including within myself.

Her indomitable sense of self delights me to my core. I’m so proud of her. Yet. While I work hard to prevent my anxiety from getting in the way, her fearlessness also sometimes scares me. She’s fierce and supported, and she’ll find her way. But there’s a small voice that asks, what if? What if in the world that awaits her, she’s excluded for being boldly different? And what if she didn’t have a family with the means to fully meet her needs and access her potential?

These are among my life’s sliding door moments: attaining some of the things that many around me couldn’t; getting a glimpse of what it might be like to be absent from the pages of popular culture; loving someone who thinks differently, who can’t and simply won’t conform — and whose brilliance would be lost if she did.

Rihanna said of the concept for her Savage X Fenty show, “I wanted to include every woman. I wanted every woman on the stage with different energies, different races, body types, different stages in their womanhood, culture.”

Relationship researcher and guru Dr. John Gottman defines sliding door moments as those times when you can see through to another person’s discomfort or struggle, pride or glee. It’s when they express emotion, even in small ways, as a bid for commiseration or acknowledgment. They’re seeking to feel seen and heard. You can choose to walk through and meet them there or ignore the moment and stay in your own headspace. One direction leads to disruption, empathy, and connection. The other leads to “safety,” steadiness and isolation.

Everything changes when we make a habit of walking through sliding doors, whether toward partners, family, friends, or even people we don’t know. This goes for humans, and for brands.

Inclusivity makes the brand for Nike, Microsoft, and Rhianna

Rihanna’s brands include a diverse makeup line, Fenty Beauty, and disruptive lingerie offering, Savage X Fenty. The vision she says, “has always been inclusivity, has always been having women feel confident and expressing themselves….”

I watched the Savage X Fenty fashion show and saw a diverse, colorful, wonderfully weird and liberating spectacle, which like the lingerie itself, was designed for the female gaze. Models of a wide range of sizes, colors and shapes (if not ages), including pregnant women, strutted, skulked and flat-out ran with abandon. What a revelation. If only my teenage self had seen it.

Nike has long celebrated the inner athlete in all of us, steadily gaining cache in the process. “Just Do It” offers something for everyone, and you don’t have to wear the swoosh to benefit from the message. Their “Find Your Greatness” campaign of 2012 was an extraordinary example of inclusive positioning that reached out across all of the imaginary lines that separate humans from one another, to a new definition of greatness that has ample room for all.

For many, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick endorsement was a headfirst dive through a sliding door, recognizing the struggle for justice of people of color. Sales rose sharply in the wake of the ad’s launch. And notably, Nike recently signed their first athlete with cerebral palsy, a moment that echoed around the globe not just for disability activists but for everyone.

A University of Oregon junior named Justin Gallegos has cerebral palsy and a goal to break the two-hour barrier in a half marathon. Nike surprised him with a three-year professional running contract.
A University of Oregon junior named Justin Gallegos has cerebral palsy and a goal to break the two-hour barrier in a half marathon. Nike surprised him with a three-year professional running contract.
Microsoft’s 2018 holiday ad, “Reindeer Games,” stars a nine-year-old boy named Owen and the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Microsoft’s 2018 holiday ad, “Reindeer Games,” stars a nine-year-old boy named Owen and the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Microsoft’s sharpened focus on helping everyone on earth achieve more, including huge investments in inclusive design, is paying off as they enter a new era of relevance. It’s viral gold, it’s the right thing to do, it’s giving purpose to employees, and it’s good for business. It’s also damn cool in a way that Apple can’t claim.

Expanding the game with your own brand of inclusive

So what are you, and your brand, supposed to do with all this? For starters, it’s not enough to follow the lead of others. It’s not enough to check the box on “multicultural casting.” Cosmetic efforts are now seen for what they are.

The answer is within your brand purpose, origin and story. Why does your company or organization exist and what does it stand for? If the answer feels shallow, dig deeper. Who does your brand care about? If the answer is small, think bigger.

What if the ethos of brand, which is free, served as an inclusive antidote to the toxic division of our times?

What if Gucci highlighted neurodivergent minds and talents, as an expression of what lives at the heart of the brand? What if they celebrated people who find their deep passions and trailblazing paths in unusual ways, just like Guccio Gucci? People who push the edges, just like the fashion house itself?

What if Huy Fong Foods, makers of that world-dominating Sriracha and other forms of heat, celebrated its beginnings in Viet Nam and one man’s unusual genius for flavor? What if they highlighted the unique fire in individuals of all kinds, what makes us “one and only” like them? Heck, any brand that can make that many different fonts work in harmony is destined to be inclusive.

What if brands had something for everyone, regardless of whether everyone can afford them? What if the ethos of brand, which is free, served as an inclusive antidote to the toxic division of our times? What if brands’ very existence shaped culture in ways that help everyone? What if buying into a brand was a statement of inclusion rather than exclusion?

Couture to condiments, the opportunities for inclusive branding are everywhere. Look for the sliding doors and step through to the other’s side.

We have nothing to lose, and everyone to gain.

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