As the world comes back online, DTC brands are coming back to the fore. This presents an opportunity to bring DTC to a larger audience, to have a different conversation about how brands fit into our everyday lives.
Away is one such DTC brand. A recent campaign of theirs, called "the more the travel the better the person," has created a buzz online. As a coastal elite, who married an immigrant, who lives in a culturally diverse part of the country, I loved this ad. But the ad didn't sit well with the rest of the Future Commerce team.
As leaders in retail, and brand operators, it's our jobs to gain greater perspective and to use that perspective to build more equitable experiences. This messaging, in this context at this time, subliminally acknowledges the divide that exists between DTC brands, their intended audience, and the rest of the country. For DTC to succeed in the long term, we will have to close this divide.
Let's dig into why this ad is problematic, and what we can learn from it.
On critical analysis of DTC Brands
For those out of the loop, on July 4th, the DTC travel brand bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, encouraging Americans to gain empathy and to rediscover their appreciation for their homeland by traveling abroad. The full text of the ad is as follows:
If you want to be a better American, get out of America. People who travel know what it's like to not belong. They're the ones making a choice to be different. Taking strange trains, saying wrong things. Experiencing the world on someone else's terms. And then, they come back. Less afraid of what they don't understand, and more empathetic to everything around them. We could use a few more people like that. So this 4th of July, think about leaving home. It's a good way to love a country.
I personally struggle with being critical of any DTC brand. By volume, DTC is presently made up of bootstrapped small businesses run by small teams or solo entrepreneurs. They embody the spirit and ideal of the American Free Enterprise System. Unlike CPG conglomerates that many DTCs emulate, to be critical of the DTC brand is to level criticism on its founders.
On one hand, it's a triumph that a brand like Away has built the equity that it has, and that it is founded by two women, Jen Rubio and Steph Korey, who are URM founders. Jen is Filipino and immigrated to New Jersey at the age of seven. Theirs is a triumphant story. In an era where 90% of startups fail, they've managed to build products that people want, and a brand that people recognize. Their success equates to measurably more than I've ever done with my career, and so I have no perspective to offer any advice to them on how to better build a business.
So, yeah. It's complicated.
But the most valuable conversations—the ones worth having— are rarely the easy ones. This conflicting feeling is expressed by Erin DaCruz, our Director of Operations, who relocated to Missouri from Florida during the pandemic: "Personally, I hated this ad," she says. "Even though I agree with the sentiment, and love traveling abroad. Having lived in the middle of the country for a year now, I'm realizing I've been missing out on what these "fly-over" states can offer, both in terms of travel and perspective."
This feeling of being "left out" of the coastal conversation took less than a year for her to foster. "I've never felt like the coasts were forgetting the rest of us until I moved last year," says DaCruz.
To be critical of the ad itself is not to be critical of Away as a brand or its founders. To be critical of the ad is to use it to level that same criticism on ourselves in eCom.
"People who travel know what it's like to not belong"
Consider for a moment if the ad in question had run on Tucker Carlson's show. Consider if it had been published in r/TheDonald. Consider if it had been published on The Drudge Report. Would it have been so quickly accepted? The ad speaks to a demographic of those prone to travel, not to those who have not. The ad is readily accepted by people like me; people who have an OLED TV with burn-in of the CNN "breaking news" logo. People who have a subscription to the NYT. I am what you would call a center-left progressive, and ready to believe that I am better for being a frequent traveler.
Truth is, our divisions run deep here at home in America, and the perspective on being a "better American" can also be gained not by leaving this country, but by connecting more deeply with the flyover states to which most of those who would take offense to this ad belong. Those folks may not travel as frequently, and they most certainly know what it's like to not belong.
Those most affected by the pandemic, who are not information workers, who had no luxury of working from their bedrooms in sweatpants—we can still take suitcases to visit them, take strange trains, and say the wrong things.
Despite my experience in travel abroad, I cannot say that I am a better American; because in the wake of the January 6th Capitol Siege, I felt a morbid sense of satisfaction that I am, somehow, better than them.
That kind of hurt to type. And it shows me how ugly my heart truly can be when it's all out on the table.
"Experience the world on someone else's terms"
My parents never held a passport. I first left the United States at the age of 23 with my wife (a first-generation immigrant) for our honeymoon.
Prior to the age of 23 and my first passport stamp, I spent 5 years as a traveling Christian musician working alongside regional church ministries. I gained perspective on how much I "didn't belong" by doing missions work right here at home in the United States.
I spent a year in the inner city of Saginaw, Michigan preaching to the homeless and distributing free food with local charities. I spent months on the north slopes of Alaska working with Inupiaq native children in the midst of a suicide epidemic that was wrecking the 900-person village of Point Hope.
And I never had to leave home to realize that I'm very privileged and proud of what we have in the United States of America. I gained that perspective by going to the places that have largely been forgotten. Over those years, I carried a suitcase that my mom bought for me from ROSS. It cost her $50.
Somehow, I've forgotten this perspective. To be very honest, that perspective, too, is problematic, because at its core it is based on a white man entering communities of color. I do not understand them or their hardships—nor have I "experienced" their world on their terms—I merely showed up for a brief amount of time and facilitated an exchange of goods.
In spending time with these people, I came to appreciate that I had an air-conditioned house with food in the pantry to come back to. But I cannot say with conviction that it made me a better American.
"Think about leaving America"
Being married to an immigrant has also had an impact on how I see this country.
In 2018, after 20 years as a green card holder, the woman I love, the mother of two natural-born citizens, finally became a U.S. Citizen. Her swearing-in ceremony was deeply moving and was a reminder that this country is a refuge for so many, especially here in South Florida, where the public schools my children attend offer dedicated instruction in Haitian Creole. Here, home to the concentration of the largest foreign-born diaspora in the United States.
No. You don't need to leave America to be a better American. You need to experience more of America.
Jesse Tyler, our Creative Director at Future Commerce said it so succinctly:
There are marginalized communities in the U.S. who have spent far too long “experiencing the world on someone else’s terms” and need Americans to be more empathetic. They’re not going to wait for rich Americans to go to Paris on a summer vacation and come back changed.
We keep hearing about revenge-spending, pent-up travel demand, and the return to summer travel; but it feels so wrong to be writing about those things in the midst of Pride month, Juneteenth, and the surge of the Delta variant. All of which have direct impacts on marginalized communities.
"The American Abroad" is the punchline to a joke we're all-too-familiar with. The caricature of the American tourist is rarely the millennial taking selfies at the Eiffel tower and is more often the obese redneck from Alabama. The Away ad message is complicated, then, in this light: it appeals to an audience (like me) who already travels. It appeals to my sense of justification of my spending. I'm not just traveling, I'm becoming a better American.
If DTC is guilty of anything, it's guilty of the hubris that luxury purchases make us better people, and improve the world. On the contrary, the Away ad helps to deepen my divide and ingratiate my self-satisfaction that there are others in this country who could be better Americans, and they're not me.
Does this campaign make me think less of Away? Assuredly not. If I were working at Away, I'd have created this exact same campaign. Word for word. This is precisely the kind of thing that Away should be doing.
That's what makes this so complicated. Away never said that leaving America was the "only way" to love a country. They said it's a great way. But travel is an expensive proposition. Do we need luxury travel brands to teach us how to be patriotic? There is no price tag on goodness, empathy, and gratitude, so be wary when these virtues are sold to you.
We could all stand to be better Americans. But you don't have to leave your country to do it.