Social Media

Power and pitfalls of social media: Kenneth Cole

Kenneth Cole on social responsibility

Social media has not only changed the way people communicate with each other but how global brands look to connect to their potential customers.

Increasingly, companies are now blurring the lines between business and morality to engage with the hearts and minds of consumers in addition to their pocketbooks.

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole has been on the leading edge of corporate social activism for decades, making provocative commentary on controversial issues of the day through the company's pun-driven advertising. "I was able to marry all of my personal and the brand's sentiments together in our messaging."

He said Friday, in a CNBC interview, that social responsibility has become part of the way of doing business. "We've been able to … connect to people on not just what they stand in but what they stand for, not just what they look like on the outside but who they are on the inside."

For example, Kenneth Cole Productions, the company he founded more than 30 years ago, was one of the first companies to publicly show support for gay rights in the 1990s—years before this summer's Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the company voiced its support for research into the disease. In 1986, it ran its first ad for amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS.

Cole argued on "Squawk Box" that taking such stances throughout the years have served to elevate the brand and its relationship with customers.

With the advent of social media, he said he's been able to amp up his advocacy, but also needs to be more cautious. "With social ... you're speaking to a larger audience. Today if you say anything to anybody essentially you're speaking to everybody. Everything is viral ... immediate ... and real-time."

"It's an extraordinary way to become a global business and have a global relevance and voice. But you have to be cautious and thoughtful about it," he warned. "People don't always read things the way they are intended."

Starbucks recently found itself a campaign to bring awareness to promote discussion of racial issues. Baristas were encouraged to write "Race Together" on cups. The effort was met with skepticism and complains on social media.

Cole learned his lessons the hard way on Twitter over the years. In 2011, he tweeted about the protests in Egypt to pitch his spring collection. Two years later, he drew criticism for a tweet referencing the "boots on the ground" debate surrounding Syria.

"Boots on the ground" or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear

Obliquely addressing those controversies on CNBC Friday, Cole said he made some early missteps and found out "Twitter is a very powerful platform for adversarial feedback."

But that didn't turn him off to social media. In fact, he said he continues to learn how to harness the power of a medium where everybody is brand onto themselves.

"My job, I believe, is to convince you to allow me to be part of your brand," he explained. "Then when you look to present yourself a certain way you'll come to me, go to our website, and you'll buy want you want in the color you want, in the size you want, for the season you want."

Cole also talked to CNBC about his experience in 2012 of taking his then-publicly traded company private—citing what he views as the advantages of not being beholden to shareholders. "You can build the business without having to deal with the quarterly demands [and] the short-term needs of the marketplace."

"You can be so much more strategic and make more meaningful investments if have the luxury of thinking longer term," he continued. "You can literally take a step back to take two forward. It's really hard to do that in the public markets."

"I love not being public," he confided. "My plan is not to be public [again] if I can help it."