Refinery29 Builds Sustainability Through An Authentic Brand Story

Matt Clement

Written by Matt Clement

April 17, 2019

Media brands are natural storytellers. Yet, many leave their personality at the door. While they’re great at sharing stories, they neglect to tell their own. However, Refinery29 is an obvious exception.

By telling an authentic brand story, Refinery29 has built a loyal following of readers. This, in turn, has propelled a team of four once focused solely on the New York City fashion scene to a global multimedia company with more than 500 employees.

Unashamed, Passionate, and Authentic

“We are unashamed and passionate about representing young women; their perspectives and their diversity, and being a platform for young talent,” Kate Ward, Refinery29’s VP International said while speaking at Digital Media Strategies 2017.

Through focusing on an authentic story, Refinery29 has built a lasting trust with their readers. One of the best examples of how they’ve accomplished this is their 67 Percent Project.

Screengrab of Refinery 29's Been Seen Campaign
Refinery29 partnered with brands like Getty Images, Lane Bryant, and Aerie to offer a diverse, authentic portrayal of women.

Pulling the numbers, Refinery29 found about 67% of American women are a size-14 and above. Meanwhile, only 2% of images in the media represent these women. “We want to change that,” Refinery29 announced via their website.

To jumpstart the project, Refinery29 teamed with stock image company Getty Images. The project aimed to produce a more accurate and diverse representation of women. The result was The 67%Collection. This collection offers editorial images portraying women with a range of body types and appearances.

In addition to the collection of stock photography, Refinery29 redesigned their own website. Their first major change? Incorporating a more diverse view of women across their entire site – from articles to ads.

images of women from the no apologies collection
Following the success of The 67 Percent Collection, Refinery29 and Getty Images produced the No Apologizes Collection of stock images.

The 67 Percent Project and collection were so successful that both Refinery29 and Getty Images teamed up again to produce the even larger and more accessible No Apologies Collection.

Refinery29’s passion for women’s issues didn’t stop with images. They’ve also helped to empower women through yet another medium: film.

Empowering Women in The Director’s Chair

In 2017, Refinery29 would again pull the numbers – this time from Hollywood. They found only 11% of the previous year’s major studio films had a female director. In response, Refinery29 partnered with TNT to produce a series of short films directed by women. In 2018, this project became the Shatterbox Anthology.

Directors included Yara Shahidi, Kristen Steward, Gillian Jacobs, and Jessica Sanders, among others. The 2018 collection of short films were released across TNT’s television, digital and social channels.

screengrab of the shatterbox website
Through the Shatterbox Anthology, Refinery29 put women in the director’s chair giving them the opportunity to tell stories with a unique voice.

By backing the directors and their films, which ranged from comedies to dramas, Refinery29 was addressing the glaring issue of women’s underrepresentation in Hollywood power positions. But, chief content officer Amy Emmerich was quick to point out this is also exactly the type of content Refinery29’s audience wants to watch.

“What kind of stories are out there, and are they representing our audience and what they want to see in the world?” Emmerich and her staffed asked themselves.

“Obviously, that wasn’t the case. We had a large amount of audience data where they felt they weren’t seeing themselves in media. So by putting more female directors in the chair, we would change, then, the representation,” Emmerich told the L.A. Times.

Taking the time to understand and engage with their audience – as well as taking a hard look at the data – has helped Refinery29 to build a meaningful connection with their readers. It’s also helped them to establish a clear, authentic brand voice. In turn, they’ve used this voice to host exciting events and connect physically with their audience. The most impressive being their annual 29Rooms event.

Enter 29Rooms

29Rooms has been described as a “funhouse of style, culture, and creativity.” That description sounds about right. The event serves as a celebration of art, women, diversity, and brands. Yes, you read that last part right: brands.

Part experiential marketing, part art installation, 29Rooms seems designed for the social media generation – exactly the audience Refinery29 targets. Since 2015, the event has been held over consecutive weekends during Fashion Week. As the name implies, the event occupies twenty-nine different rooms throughout a Brooklyn warehouse. Each room houses a different experience.

Past rooms have included art installations by South Korean artist JeeYoung Lee, who crafted a seascape scene from New York City trash, and illustrator José Antonio Roda’s “In Light of You.” Other artists who have taken part include poet Rupi Kaur and big-name stars like Kesha. Side-by-side with the artists and the stars are brand-sponsored rooms.

images from the 29 rooms collage
29Rooms is one part art installation and another part experiential marketing. Rooms vary from brand experiences to celebrations of women, diversity, and art.

Brand partners have included rooms by Juicy Couture, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Snap Inc. Often, these rooms include product giveaways coupled with selfie-encouraging photo ops. This mixture of art and branding may seem counterintuitive, but Refinery29 puts in a lot of work to make sure the experience is seamless, fun, and insightful.

“Whenever we work with brands, we look for partners who understand and are driven by the opportunity to have real one-on-one connections with guests and brands who are creatively adventurous,” Refinery29 co-founder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi told Forbes.

“Our team of experiential designers and creatives work extremely close with our brand partners to help bring their vision to life,” Gelardi continued. “Our on-site installations allow people to see brands in a new light, creating an experience that exemplifies who they are through a new medium that is fun, thought-provoking, and interactive.”

In 2018, 29Rooms drew over 20,000 visitors during Fashion Week. Building off this success, Refinery29 took the show on the road in early 2019. The event made stops in big cities including Chicago and Los Angeles. It seems the leap into “IRL” connections is only getting started. Refinery29’s audience is clearly hungry for more.

While sponsored events and articles may seem potentially off-putting, Refinery29 believes being authentic and remaining honest has earned the trust and loyalty of their audience. And this loyalty has paid off.

The Benefits of Brand Loyalty

Brands know the value of earning customer and audience loyalty. As a media company, Refinery29 understands earning trust is crucial.

“By staying true to our voice while telling stories through the Refinery29 lens, we’ve developed a trusting relationship with our audience,” Anna Plaks, VP of Brand Experiences at Refinery29, told Pressboard.

Through connecting deeply with their readers, Refinery29 has the opportunity to partner with brands and deliver sponsored content without appearing as though they’re selling out or cheapening their image. In fact, as their readership continues to climb, Refinery29 believes partnering with brands has provided a great opportunity to continue connecting with their audience.

“Two in three of our readers say they trust a brand on the basis of what they’ve seen on Refinery29,” VP of International, Kate Ward says. “Our branded content is clearly marked, and our audience appreciates it.” Ward also explains brands choose to partner with Refinery29 because of the trust they’ve built up. It seems like a win-win all around.

Authenticity, openness, and wearing your heart on your sleeve seems to pay-off with today’s millennial-minded audiences. As sustainability becomes an ever-pressing concern for publishers and multimedia companies, branded content is an attractive revenue opportunity. However, to create a trusting relationship with readers, publishers have to also speak clearly and with an authentic voice.

Like Refinery29, a brand’s voice, personality, and the story must be clear and engaging in order to engage with your audience.
In order for your readers to clearly hear your brand’s voice and listen to your story, you need to create meaningful engagement. That’s why we’ve crafted digital content experience software, like our PageRaft platform that can help your brand engage for over 7 minutes on average.
We love helping brands and publishers build deeper engagement with their content. To learn more about our platforms, feel free to schedule a no strings attached demo with one of our partnership specialists at

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