Beyond Woke: How not to high-jack culture

So, you want to be an ethical brand and show how your product is changing the world. Is this because you have a burning desire to ‘do good’? Or because the message is that younger audiences want socially responsible brands? It's something our Brand Director, Krupali Cescau, has previously thought about here but in light of our latest research we want to ask –

Are you in danger of woke-washing?

Woke-washing is a way of virtue signalling. It’s when brands use a social cause as a marketing strategy. At its worst, the brand might be highlighting a cause that it actually does direct harm to individuals through its supply chain, workers rights, or workplace conduct. This performative wokeness might be something obvious, think of the image of Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi over. It might be more insidious, like the prevalent appropriation of working class culture in the fashion industry. A more nuanced version might look like Gillette’s pivot on their famous tagline: ‘A best a man can get’. The Guardian saw this as a woke-wash, noting the convenient change in messaging actually co-opted the social #MeToo movement. But we might also note that a brand like Gillette has been part of the potentially harmful image of masculinity. The advert might have been schmaltzy but seeing a brand become accountable for their own small part played in bro-culture is important.

But if it’s so easy to get it wrong, it’s time for brands to start thinking deeply about what ‘meaning something’ actually means.

What do consumer values look like?

Consumer values are not necessarily a fixed position and people are looking for ways to make small changes that might lead to a bigger impact. For example, one of our Young Blood participants, Beth (24) told us: ‘I’ve got Veja trainers. They’re vegan. I’m not vegan but it helps the environment so that’s at least something’. Veja are a great example of a brand just being. They offer style first, with the added bonus of ethical production. This chimes with a key finding from our Young Blood research that surprised us. 41% of respondents believe it is unimportant how the brands they purchase make them look to others. They’re not buying ‘woke’ items to be seen as ‘woke’. Rather, they’re looking to reinforce their own beliefs, to find ways in which to live a better life and get the most out of their purchases. Buying quality is an imperative and having a sustainable, ‘woke’ value added on is a bonus.

What Veja get right is that being sustainable is at the very core of what they do. They don’t have to shout about it because it’s just a fact. What they instead focus on is a more traditional marketing strategy - social media, branding and a helpful seal of Royal approval.

If you’ve been a company whose values have not reflected where you want to pivot to, some real work has to go in. You can’t just hijack culture. For example, it’s not great when marriage equality is jumped on to sell everything from flights to ice cream, especially when these hard won rights can easily backslide.

The key is to authentically engage with the issues you want to champion. One worry is that ‘woke washing’ has negative connotations - that it might put brands off from engaging in social change. Brands have power and leveraging that for social good is a positive thing... when it’s done correctly. Here are three ways that might help centre the pursuit of championing causes in something more authentic:

1. Embrace the conversation

One of the main reasons that brands fail at ‘moral marketing’ is stepping too tentatively into the arena of debate. The issues being championed by brands, from gender rights to LGBTQA* issues and #BlackLivesMatter, are real. Too real. The glow of being part of important conversation masks the underlying sense that something tangible needs to be happening alongside these tweetstorm generators.

Being genuinely part of a conversation means actually speaking to people and embracing your part in the dialogue; not just top-down messaging about your brand. It’s scary, but if you get it wrong - engage. Use it as a teachable moment for your company, don’t just take down the ad and walk away.

2. Your audience are savvy

The main thing to note is that audiences are savvy and they’re beginning to question the motives of brands who insert themselves into conversations about politics and identity.

It might even feel like people are even waiting for slip-ups. Iceland’s pledge to stop selling palm-oil has been seemingly undermined by a report that stores are still selling 28 own-brand products with palm oil or fat, as well as more than 600 from other brands. The BBC’s investigation also signals that consumers want accountability (and, unfortunately, it also makes good call-out click-bait). This means providing transparency over moments where the plan might have fallen down. It helps to set audience expectations – don't over promise and under deliver. It’s all too easy to fall short of expectations, so setting them and communicating them matters.

3. Genuinely give back

Whether it’s through collaboration or direct donations, there are ways of giving back to the communities you choose to support. Giving back might mean building a social model into your brand, like US based company STATE bag. When you buy a bag, they fill another with school supplies and donate it to a local student. They champion issues like raising awareness of mass incarceration and #BlackLivesMatter, whilst also directly supporting their community.

In the UK, Birdsong work directly with their supply chain, from knitters in the North West to sewers in East London, paying a fair wage and giving back to the communities they work with. They also create campaigns that champion body positivity. Living up to their tagline ‘No sweatshop, no photoshop’, they have become a beacon for how smaller brands can work direct and have their social mission at the heart of their product.