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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

Rethinking Black Friday: Brands, Ethics, and Purpose in the Shopping Frenzy

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

black friday text on black

In the whirlwind of today’s Amazon worker strikes in the UK, a big question pops up: Should brands think twice about Black Friday? Is that decision as black and white as it first looks?

The backstory of Black Friday goes way back to a messy gold market crash in 1869. But its link to retail chaos started in Philadelphia, post-Thanksgiving, when hoards of shoppers flooded the city for the Army-Navy football game. Fast forward to the '80s, retailers dusted it off, painting it as a positive day when businesses supposedly went from 'in the red' to 'in the black' for the year. Myth or not, the tradition stuck.

When thinking about branding for startups, jumping on the Black Friday bandwagon with flashy sales might seem like a good idea if the profit margins play along. But how will his affect how people feel about your brand?

This tug-of-war matters for brands that are trying to build purpose into their brand. Our planet's drowning in excess. Does it sit well with your vision to hype up buying loads of things folks might not even need, only for them to end up as landfill? What are you actually saying you stand for when you join the sale mania, will this matter to your brand in the long-term? I'm not saying it will matter for everyone, but you've at least got to think about it.

I believe that every brand should have a driving purpose—it's what I call "magnetic branding." Your brand's character, values, and beliefs should sync up. I previously wrote about Abel & Cole's brand personality, speculating that it was a mix of David Attenborough and Jamie Oliver. It’s hard to imagine Sir David endorsing a day that screams overconsumption. But maybe that's not so important to McDonald's.

Patagonia don't buy this jacket ad

Patagonia's "Don't buy this jacket" campaign in The New York Times during Black Friday in 2011 is a classic. While everyone was yelling "buy, buy, buy," Patagonia flipped the script. For them, it wasn't about sales; it was about values. And guess what? It worked wonders, etching them deeper into their fans' hearts.

Plenty of purpose-driven brands are doing Black Friday differently in a way that a;igns to their own beliefs. Take Hiut Denim, a jeans maker from Wales. They closed their site today, Black Friday, replacing it with a powerful message highlighting what they stand for—quality that last. They don't want you to buy 10 pairs of their jeans a year. They want to build products that last years.

Hiut denim black friday webpage, black with picture of the earth
Hiut Denim's website today, Black Friday

LUSH, who are moving more and more into the activist brand space, dropped a Cloud bath bomb on Black Friday. Profits from this will go into their ECS Big Tech campaign, taking on Big Tech's shady data game. For them it's all about sticking to their values—being open, using safe stuff, (and keeping their customers free from Big Tech), and making folks happy without wrecking the planet.

The LUSH website on black friday featuring graphics saying "join the Big Tech Revolution"
LUSH website, today Black Friday

LUSH bath bomb, the black cloud
Lush website today, Black Friday featuring The Cloud bath bomb

Canopey instagram feed with green washing machine

Canopey, an ethical online store, used Black Friday to call out greenwashing. They created a "green washing machine," shining a light on brands doing it wrong.

They are offering a 15% discount on Black Friday, but they have explained why they are doing this in a very transparent social post that ends with "if it means a better choice is available to more people, then it's worth it" - becasue they'll likely lose money on a lot of orders because as a retailer margins are very small. This has served as a great opportunity for the brand to demonstrate its values to its tribe, and get them even more fired-up.

The last brand is Finisterre with their Blue Friday, which is helping to support their own cause; helping everyone get access to the ocean. They will donate £2 from every order to the Finisterre Foundation.

"The Finisterre Foundation aims to remove barriers to access so everyone can get to and benefit from the transformative power of the ocean." This in turn helps protect the sea, becasue if it's important to you, you are more likely to help to look after it.

Finisterre website on Black Friday, surfer in the ocean
Finisterre website on Black Friday

Branding for startups to create magnetism begins with purpoe. This acts as a guiding light for everything you do. Joining the Black Friday sale might align with that purpose, for example it might be a way to help more people to get access to good quality stuff at lower prices, like Canopey. In which case a sale might be the right thing to do (but make it on your own terms). You

What is the right stance for your brand to take? Can you get creative and flip it to really shout about what you stand for whilst at the same time driving sales?

If you’re looking for a wholeheartedly positive marketing opportunity, why not develop a creative campaign for Giving Tuesday which was set up in 2012 to encourage people to do good.

Until next time.

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