How I Made It

Kenneth Cole: Don't make this branding mistake

Can capitalism and community work together in harmony? Kenneth Cole, shoe designer and chairman of Kenneth Cole Productions, says yes.

"Giving back makes the business I believe more sustainable," he told CNBC. "It has engaged and empowered all of our associates and it's made the journey probably even greater than wherever that destination would look like."

More than three decades ago, Cole went to an Italian shoe factory with the goal of making money to furnish his lifestyle. However, he soon realized that instead, if his goal were to do the right thing, the money would flow in on its own.

"I do believe if I could make it about something that's more sustainable than hem lengths, heel heights, then so becomes my relationship with my customer — more about what they stand in but what they stand for. Not just of what they wear, but of what they are aware," he said.

Cole's brand is known for its provocative commentary on political issues through its advertising, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Cole used advertising to resonate with customers and simultaneously support causes such as gay rights and AIDS research.

Source: Kenneth Cole (An example of Kenneth Cole using advertising to support gay rights.)

"Ultimately we speak about the importance to look good for good," he said. "I think the goal here is to make that convergence as seamless as possible, and I think if we can do that, then we've brought something very special to our relationship with our clients."

For individuals looking to follow in Cole's footsteps and marry a cause with their brand, it's imperative that they maintain a consistent voice, he said.

"Look, I think at the end of the day we have two voices. One of them is visual and it's the product ... and it's what defines the brand. And then there's the spoken voice, which is often written," he said. "The two somewhat have to exist together and there has to be a sustainable and reliable perspective and point of view that prevails. If you can maintain that, then the brand has validity. In fact, it's hardly a brand unless, in fact, it has that point of consistency."