Good vs. Bad: How Brands Win With Authentic Storytelling (and Lose Without It)

Comparing a successful and a failed clothing rental service

Image for post
Image for post

When I moved to New York, the clothing rental service Rent the Runway caught my eye because we had a similar fashion rental service back in South Korea, Project Anne. But SKT Planet, the South Korean parent company of Project Anne, decided to shut it down last year after two years of operation because they concluded that it is impossible to make a profitable fashion rental service. Naturally, I was curious as to why Rent the Runway became successful. I started following their Instagram, which I believe is the most important communication channel for fashion brands today, and there I found some clues.

Branding: Empowering Women vs. Establishing a Smart Fashion Habit

Even though their service was the same, they took a different approach to presentation. Rent the Runway speaks about culture, Project Anne spoke about their product. Let’s explore.

Project Anne — Smart fashion habits

Image for post
Image for post

Project Anne’s catchphrase (translated from Korean) is “Let’s not buy and enjoy. Your new fashion habit: Project Anne.” In every ad, Project Anne talks about how renting is more reasonable, easier, and a wiser choice than buying clothes. They do so by continuously showing the situation of having nothing to wear even though we buy clothes every year. However, the subscription price was not enough for customers to immediately recognize the service as rational, since it wasn’t much cheaper than buying clothes of similar quality (4 items/month for $80, 8 items for $130). Paying money to not own something was an unfamiliar experience and customers couldn’t find a reason to use a rental service. But what about Rent the Runway?

Rent the Runway — Empowering women

Image for post
Image for post

The subscription price for Rent the Runway is similar to Project Anne (four items a month for $89, four items a month with unlimited rotation for $159). But unlike Project Anne, Rent the Runway makes it worthwhile to pay by clearly communicating what it is like to have freedom in fashion and how it will change people’s everyday lives. On their website, their vision is put clearly: “Our mission is to make women feel empowered and self-confident every single day.” “Empowering,” “powerful,” and“confident” are essential words that represent Rent the Runway’s brand. On their Instagram, there are thousands of women with confidence in their style, looking like bosses, and being real bosses in diverse fields. Let’s take a look.

Social Media Communication: Lifestyle and Diverse Women vs. Product, Models, and Actresses

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Rent the Runway’s Instagram feed is comprised of lifestyle scenes. Women in the pictures are on a street, in front of a mirror, resting in a bed, and at a party. On the other hand, Project Anne’s Instagram feed is composed of product-focused shots. Models are in front of a blank background, and some shots are close-ups of clothing. Moreover, women in Rent the Runway’s feed are all different individuals having different skin color, hair style, height, body and fashion style, while there are the two same models repeatedly shown in Project Anne’s feed. If there was anyone other than the models, they were all actresses, singers, and celebrities.

These differences create a different level of rapport with customers. For example, since Rent the Runway’s women are composed of diverse individuals, it makes customers think, ‘I think I can be just like her,’ whereas Project Anne’s photos might make customers think ‘They are models. It will not look like that on my body,’ or ‘These products are not my style.’

On Project Anne’s feed, customers cannot surmise that they can get more than just clothes, while Rent the Runway’s customers can imagine a happier and simpler life by having an unlimited closet. Therefore, their subscription price becomes payable because what they are buying is not only the subscription itself but a positive life-changing experience. Rent the Runway’s product becomes not the subscription itself but the entryway to empowering life, playing within fashion, and meeting your more stylish myself.

The Tipping Point: Brand Authenticity

As I tracked Rent the Runway’s Instagram, a marketing concept came to mind: brand authenticity. Brand authenticity is associated with a customer’s evaluation on whether a brand is genuine, being true to themselves, and honest. Dr.Paul Marsden defined perceived brand authenticity as:

“The extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful toward itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves.”

According to Napoli, Dickinson, Beverland, and Farrelly:

“Commonly, authenticity is used to refer to the genuineness, reality or truth of something (Kennick, 1985). It has also been defined in terms of sincerity, innocence and originality (Fine, 2003) and related to concepts such as being natural, honest, simple and unspun (Boyle, 2003).”

As consumers become marketing literate, they start to recognize whether their initiatives are honest and genuine activities or just mere alluring marketing ploys. It’s a multi-criteria concept, and various studies have revealed factors creating brand authenticity, such as consistency, heritage, originality, credibility, sincerity, cultural symbolism, and so on. If the first two aspects were the foundation of successful branding, brand authenticity is the tipping point which makes Rent the Runway a successful brand.

Rent the Runway’s authenticity

Image for post
Image for post

In celebration of Women’s month, Rent the Runway live-streamed ‘The Group Chat’ every Saturday, in which RTR members discuss thought-provoking topics surrounding fashion, such as “Why can’t women just wear what they want?” and “ Is dressing your age no longer relevant?” When I first saw this branding approach, I clapped at their brilliant approach. Some of you may not understand my reaction. Why brilliant? Let’s think broadly.

The group chat is brilliant because it presents Rent the Runway as seriously approaching women’s fashion culture. They are not simply talking about renting clothes but broadly narrating women and fashion by digging into what getting dressed means to women, why does it matter, and how we can improve its culture. Whether customers really watched all the episodes doesn’t matter. The fact that Rent the Runway is creating these kinds of discussion makes customers see them as faithful and sincere.

To sum up, three points were highlighted from Rent the Runway’s branding:

  1. Suggesting a vision beyond a mere product.
  2. Communicating a lifestyle which encompasses diverse individuals.
  3. Achieving brand authenticity.

Branding is really not about making a logo and having visual consistency. It requires a serious social and cultural study about the product to suggest quality, understandable, and attractive values to a customer.

Written by

A different type of writer for analysis-loving individuals. As a researcher, I love to dig into the bottom

Sign up for The Better Marketing Newsletter

By Better Marketing

Our map to the marketing world. An occasional newsletter highlighting the best stories, tips, and tools to become a better marketer.  Take a look

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store