Brands are shifting their attention toward brand activism as sociopolitical issues become more prominent in the social debate. Most of these initiatives, sadly, are inauthentic woke washing.
You may have heard of greenwashing, but now there is a fancy new term in town: Woke Washing.
As sociopolitical issues earn a more substantial share of voice in the cultural debate, brands are also increasingly flirting with political ideals. A report after report is published by market research firms and brand consultants stating “millennials want their brands to take a stance on social issues” or “have a higher altruistic brand purpose or die”.
Now, I’m not saying that brand activism is a bad thing. It’s not at all. In fact, it’s great. But, it has to be authentic. Fully committing to creating quality products while not donating to social causes is a better brand strategy than positioning your brand as a social justice warrior but only contributing to the cause with a measly rainbow flag for the period of June to July 1st. Sad truth is that most brands fall in the latter category.
In this article, we will make sure that doesn’t happen to you. There is a thin line between authentic activism and woke washing. But by the time you get to the bottom of this page, you will have learnt what woke washing is, and how to avoid it.
What is woke washing?
Woke washing lives on the opposite end from authentic brand activism. When brand activism is authentic, corporate values align with the messaging and fuel a genuine intrinsic motivation for betterment. Woke washing is when brands pretend to care about a social issue in the belief that it will increase profit.
Woke washing brands may champion a certain problem outside of the organization while allowing it run run rampant inside the walls of the company. In the summer of 2020, Mark Ritson drew attention to this in his weekly MarketingWeek column. Ritson started by taking the example of Nike’s #blacklivesmatter advertisement.
The ad dramatically reads “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America” and then a few frames later “Let’s all be part of the change”. Yet, looking at Nike’s leadership team, there’s not a single black person despite black people making of a significant portion of their sponsored athletes and consumers.
Another big woke washing example is Pride Month.
At the time of writing, it’s 4th of June. A beautiful time of the year when the sun’s out, grass is green, and all corporations turn gay for a month. At least where it’s convenient. Look at Mercedes-Benz:
The company has rainbow-ed its logo on Twitter in support of the LGBTQ community. It’s done the same for many of its local accounts including Canada, United States, Switzerland, Netherlands, Spain and Mexico. The brand has also done this for related accounts such as the Formula1 Mercedes team and the Mercedes Museum.
But what about its operations in the middle-east?
LGBTQ rights are hardly a cause the brand is passionate about across the entire corporation, more when it provides opportunities for additional sales. However, it should be said that it’s not all bad when brands black out or rainbow their logos. It’s a fairly innocent gesture and uses the reach to bring attention to the cause. Even more so as people like me get irritated by it and debate it with their friends. But it’s also irresponsible and unethical. It’s piggybacking and may discredit the real movements behind the causes.
Why do brands woke wash?
The simple answer is that the downside is minimal. Despite countless surveys claiming that consumers want brands to take a stance on sociopolitical causes, in reality it weighs very little in decisions for most people across most product categories. Meanwhile, all the rage and discussion elevates brand awareness and mental capacity.
But for some people it weighs more. I came across a Forbes article by Larissa Faw that opened like this:
“I have a Millennial-aged friend who only wears Toms shoes despite the fact these shoes hurt his feet, cannot be worn in the rain or cold, and fall apart within weeks simply because he strongly believes in its mission of providing shoes to third-world children. Essentially, Toms values and charitable mission override his common sense. And my friend isn’t alone is spending his money at companies that do good over ones that offer good products.”
For most people this sounds absolutely ludicrous. Why would you spend your money on something like that? If the shoes are so bad then what good are they to third-world children? Wouldn’t it be better to just buy one pair of good shoes that last years and donate the money otherwise spent on Toms shoes every few weeks? Yes, it would, but nevertheless Faw’s snippet represents a fringe group of high involvement that brands manage to tap through half-assed activism with minimal attrition to the core customer base.
How to avoid woke washing?
It’s really quite simple. Don’t build marketing campaigns around sociopolitical causes that you can’t substantiate with your brand’s track record and behavior. Jessica Vredenburg and her colleagues came up with a useful framework.1Vredenburg, J., Kapitan, S., Spry, A., & Kemper, J. (2020). Brands Taking a Stand: Authentic Brand Activism or Woke Washing?. Journal Of Public Policy &Amp; Marketing, 39(4), 444-460. doi: 10.1177/0743915620947359 It’s a matrix that categorizes brands to four quadrants based on their activist messaging and prosocial corporate practice. In other words, it compares voice to action.
You want to avoid the lower right quadrant. Brand’s don’t have to be activists and when they are they don’t have to advertise it heavily, but its okay if they do as long as they can back it up. But if you do want to promote a cause, be very critical and make sure you have some proof points in place. This will help you build trust.
Brand activism and cause marketing is a dangerous zone to operate in. If you are just starting out building a brand, then this shouldn’t even be one your mind right now. Be prosocial if you want, but aim for the silent brand activism to begin with. Not only will this give you time to build up a solid operational base but it will also increase your credibility if you ever to want to start talking about it.
- 1Vredenburg, J., Kapitan, S., Spry, A., & Kemper, J. (2020). Brands Taking a Stand: Authentic Brand Activism or Woke Washing?. Journal Of Public Policy &Amp; Marketing, 39(4), 444-460. doi: 10.1177/0743915620947359