Founder Callia Hargrove discusses what it’s like to start a company amid a pandemic, what marketing that centers diversity and inclusion looks like and how brands can (and should) communicate right now.
Backstory Consulting, a marketing and consulting agency with a focus on diversity and inclusion, was born, entirely, amid a time of global unrest. It was founded in early June, as Covid-19 cases in the U.S. continued to rise, but the idea for it started manifesting as founder Callia Hargrove began to quarantine in New York City a few months ago — and it was spurred by ongoing conversations about race within the fashion industry.
“At the start of the pandemic, I was interviewing at a company and about to probably accept a role and because of what happened, it just didn’t work out. I was back to square one,” she says, over the phone. “I took this MBA course online — I’m a Capricorn, so I’m always trying to find something to do — and I figured out a lot of things about my work style and what kind of role would make me happy, and it really was pointing towards entrepreneurship. But I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take that step full time.”
The Teen Vogue and Calvin Klein alum had been freelancing in marketing, with a focus on social media (her specialty), since the beginning of the year. As Black Lives Matters protests were organized across the world and conversations around racism in the fashion industry became more frequent, Hargrove saw an opportunity to translate the work she’d already been doing throughout her career into something bigger. And it couldn’t wait.
“I was going to launch this concept that wasn’t fully flushed out at the end of June, but I just had this push to start it right then, on June 2,” she says. “I think the timing really feels very perfect, but I want to see a change in the industry that I work in.”
Backstory works with brands in different capacities — be it on developing a content strategy, casting a campaign, vetting posts or even mediating — always with an emphasis on diversity. Though she’s primarily worked in fashion (having held full-time positions at Racked and Cools, on top of Teen Vogue and Calvin Klein), Hargrove sees the company as an opportunity to venture into other fields that could also benefit from her expertise, especially during a time when how a brand communicates with its audience is extremely important.
“That’s another reason why I wanted to go out on my own: I didn’t want to be placed in a box,” she explains. “I want to be able to work across different industries and really help to make change across the board.”
Fashionista spoke with Hargrove about Backstory’s, well, backstory, building and marketing a company amid a pandemic and what brands need to know about communicating with customers now.
How did Backstory come to be?
I have been doing social marketing, specifically, for almost 10 years, which is insane. I’ve been trying to figure out what my next move [is] because I think a lot of people that came up in marketing at the same time that I did are hitting either the burnout point or [are asking], “Well, what are my next steps? What is this going to look like in the next two years?” It’s been amazing to be part of a class that has made social such a legitimate form of marketing. There are only so many places you can go in a traditional social setting.
Last year, around August, I was working for a company called Cools, revamping all of their brand marketing. The role allowed me to do a lot of different things, but it was a small company and unfortunately, they had to lay me off [in January] due to budget concerns. When that happened, I was like, “Huh, what do I really want to do next?” I was interviewing at a lot of places and nothing really felt right.
I had been freelancing since I left Cools in various capacities. When what me and some of my peers are calling the racial reckoning happened, I just felt this real push. I consider myself kind of a religious person, and it felt like the timing just lined up. I started putting together a couple of ideas of what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t figure out what was going to be the thing that was going to unify this company. As a marketer, I’m like, “What is the positioning? What is going to make this different?”
When George Floyd was murdered and we started seeing this shift, I thought, “Wow, I’ve been doing this work.” Because I’m a Black woman, it’s just inherent to me. [My work has] always been through the lens of diversity and inclusion, but I hadn’t really legitimized that and made that my point and vision. It really felt like it just clicked into place, like “Oh, this is what I should be doing.” Marketing is such a big way that we can shape the world. It inspires young people. I think I knew that, but I didn’t know, I guess, my own power in storytelling and helping brands to be more diverse and push that forward. It was part of my work, but not in the way that it is, obviously, when you found a company rooted in diversity and inclusion.
Tell us about launching a company — not just announcing it, but also fully conceptualizing it — amid a pandemic.
I was in a very interesting position where I felt like I didn’t have any other choice, and I had nothing to lose by starting this. That’s a very privileged place to be — I know that and I understand that. That’s part of why I want to do this, because I want to also help lift up my friends that have maybe lost jobs. I try to pass along work and bring them in when I can.
It’s also knowing that a lot of brands that I pitch are like, “Yes, we’d love to work with you, but we just don’t have the budget right now.” It can get a little frustrating because you want to work with these brands and they want to work with you, but just not right now. [It’s] trying to make peace with that and still build these relationships and do outreach, so at least we’re in these people’s minds.
Another thing, too, that I didn’t know would be such a big part of having this business is marketing Backstory. We’ve been doing a lot of graphics and trying to educate people for free, in a sense, whether it’s how to market your business right now or how to make your influencer programs more diverse — tactful little takeaways that people can use and circulate within their companies to maybe have certain conversations that feel difficult. I feel like it’s a way that I can give back to people that maybe can’t afford to book us right now or are trying to learn. We even started a newsletter, just because I wanted to make sure that down the line, people are still keeping us in their minds.
How do you pitch Backstory to brands?
I push it as a modern marketing agency or consultancy firm — whatever fits the day, the situation — always rooted in diversity, inclusion and equity. I’ve had to, almost every week since we’ve been in business, add a new service, just because the need is there and I’m able to do it. I want to be a resource in whatever ways I can.
I think a lot of people are just trying to navigate what this moment is and how they can individually and at the organization level and the brand level, how to really make change. A lot don’t know the next step forward, and that’s okay. That’s what I’m here for, and other people, too. We do need to be compensated for the work, though — it’s an investment, in my mind. And I tell people: The best thing that you can do is to hire an agency like Backstory or an individual who’s a consultant that specifically works in diversity and inclusion and can consult with you, maybe on a level that I can’t. And I’m all for that because I want everyone to come up. We all have different perspectives and there are some clients that I have to refer to other people.
At the root of what we do is storytelling. That’s been a thread throughout my career and something that I’m very passionate about. I think that people really relate to hearing the stories of other people. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to keep in the fold of my work, make sure that people are at the root of what I’m doing — whether that’s marketing, influencer marketing, vetting.
What does a marketing strategy with a focus on diversity and inclusion look like?
I can take an example on one of the first clients that we’ve worked with, a jewelry brand. I came to the founder because I noticed that she was liking some of my Instagram posts about Backstory. She reached out saying that she wanted to book our vetting service, which is something that I had to create because a lot of people are coming to me asking for free advice on certain things, or just wanting to get my purview on a specific piece of content. We were able to work through something that she’ll be rolling out on Instagram, highlighting what she and her company are planning to do to make lasting change.
I work in real time with my clients when I’m doing these vetting services and help them edit, whether that’s certain verbiage… That’s been something that really has come up a lot: People don’t feel like they have the right words to get across what they’re trying to say. I almost act as a translator, I guess, in that way. I go through, edit, give suggestions, work through it. That’s been the service that people have been utilizing us for the most, because obviously with Covid, people’s budgets are not as high as they normally would be. I’m conscious of that, especially for small businesses.
I’ve also worked with influencers in that same capacity, who have had situations where they’ve been called out or canceled, figure out what’s going to be their next step and what that looks like. I’m starting to, probably within the next month, work with a couple of brands in a larger capacity, on project rollouts and campaigns, whether that’s making sure that they have the right influencers, and influencers of all different [backgrounds], because the thing that I really want to highlight with is that, yes, it’s about Black people — but it’s also about a lot of other disenfranchised people that aren’t getting the time that they deserve. I want to bring everyone into that and make sure that everyone is being highlighted.
The fall campaigns and even the 2021 campaigns next year, that’s where we’re going to really start to be able to strategize on a larger level and work with these brands to make sure that the marketing assets and campaign themes are reflective of the world that we’re living in now, but also of the one that we want to see.
Marketing amid not just a pandemic, but also time of civil protest and a larger conversation about race in the fashion and beauty industries, can be a difficult thing to navigate. What do you think makes for an effective communication during these times?
It’s been interesting seeing the shift when Covid happened, but also the shift when it’s been Covid plus the racial reckoning, then Covid, racial reckoning and protests. I think the best thing that brands can do right now to be effective communicators is to be reactive and really have their eyes on what’s going on in the world.
I always use the underwear brand Parade as a really great example of being reactive in that way and ensuring that they’re speaking to their audience about things that they care about. They did an email blast around the time when all of the big protests were happening that was almost like a protest toolkit. It had nothing to do with underwear, but I’m guessing their marketing team knows that their audience is comprised mainly of millennials and Gen-Z consumers, so they pushed something out to highlight how to be safe during a protest. I was seeing so many people on Instagram sharing that email, screenshotting it like, “Oh my God, this is so great, Parade. This is what brands should be doing.” I don’t know the inside information, but I’m going to guess that their sales went up because of that. I know that I hadn’t been following them, necessarily, and I went to follow their page. It doesn’t really directly impact their bottom line, but I’m sure that it attracted a lot of customers.
I think that diversity is always good for business, and that’s how I pitch it. I know a lot of brands care about ROI, especially the bigger ones, and how is this going to make us money. It’s proven that diversity does make for a better business. The world is changing at a speed that I think is hard to keep up with, especially as a marketer. You could be one day talking about a product and the next, people don’t have money or the next, something crazy happened in politics.
I know budgets are tricky, but [investing in] listening software can help with really reading the sentiment of your followers and what they’re saying and doing. Also, I think honesty goes such a long way, being earnest with your customers and really keeping it real about what’s going on and how you as a brand are doing things to make the world a better place. Be specific about it, because I think that allows consumers to hold people accountable. People will support brands that are doing things that they support.
What would you say are the most common missteps that can happen in marketing right now? How do brands course-correct or learn from that?
I know the first one is to be honest. There’s a lot of calling out happening. If you have any skeletons in the closet, call them out before someone else does, because people are going to respect you a lot more if you’re forthcoming with information, versus if you’re not. I’m seeing so many brands releasing their diversity statements and then people in the comments are saying, “Yeah, but you utilize child labor in other countries” — just things that if they would have been forthcoming with it and say how they’re committing to change, it wouldn’t be such an issue.
There’s also a lot of performative things going on. When you’re up there saying, “Oh, we’re doing this stuff to support Black people,” because that’s trending right now, consumers know that. They’re going to call you out on other things that maybe you’re not highlighting or you’re not working to actively change. It needs to be everything. I know that’s overwhelming as a brand to figure out, but figure it out. You have to. You don’t really have a choice right now. If you do want those comments to stop, you have to work to make change to stop the things that people are commenting about.
I never think that the commenters are wrong. If a collective of people are having an issue with something in your company, I’m going to guess most of them are consumers. I don’t go and leave comments on brands that I don’t follow, but I do leave comments on the pages of brands that I support and love and are ashamed to see them doing certain things I don’t agree with and don’t align with my personal beliefs. I think it’s really important to be honest, but also to listen and take the feedback constructively. Listen to your consumers.
Then, commit to doing the work. Again, all that parading is nothing if you don’t have the infrastructure to back it up. Don’t say, “Oh, we’re going to hire XYZ amount of Black people in the next year” and then don’t give any sort of way for people to hold you accountable and ensure that that’s going to happen. People smell bullshit.
The thing that I’m trying to get across is that consumers are smart, and they will find things. You want to get ahead of any backlash that could happen. If you’re committed to doing the work and being a better corporation, and also saying, “We messed up in these ways and we’re trying to work on it” — people don’t have anything to comment about.
Also, one other thing that I always want to highlight is: Amplify, amplify, amplify the voices of people that are doing work and have been doing this work for years. I’m seeing so many companies making all of these shifts, whether it’s a dance company making ballet shoes for Black people now or bandages when we’ve needed those things for years. It’s like, “Well, why haven’t you been able to do those things in that past?” There are companies that, because there was a need for those things, have made it themselves. I think either working in partnership with these companies or highlighting them on your pages — even if it means that you may take a little bit of a hit — that’s good for business in the long run. I also think that it’s good for the business environment and supporting other people and people that have been doing the work for years.
Where do you see Backstory growing?
On a macro level, I would love to have Backstory turned into something where I’m financially in a place where I can invest in other businesses. I’ve always been really, really passionate about small businesses and businesses founded by women of color. I used to work at this company called Of a Kind, where I think I really fell in love with the stories of products and the importance of people that make things themselves. I really would love to be able to act as a VC firm, in a way, where we’re able to help fund businesses created by women of color, people of color or people from the LGBTQIA community. I really would love to be able to do that, help propel these businesses further and have that be part of our story as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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