Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, warns about the dangers of ‘woke washing’ in advertising. Woke washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose, and it’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply.

In today’s digital age, characterised by the decline of traditional media and, as some commentators suggest, an equivalent drop in our attention spans, marketers have to contend with reaching out to consumers accustomed to skipping ads on YouTube or overlooking them entirely in the noise of information overload.

It was probably this and the confluence of other emerging trends that led noted futurist and author Faith Popcorn to remark in 2018, ‘Advertising is dead. Over. Two huge changes are happening: one is machine learning which will, in real time, customise messages and offers to suit the individual, to an almost DNA-specific level. Next: culture is the new media. Don’t buy an ad. Put your brand’s belief into the culture.’

The idea of successfully getting a brand’s message into the culture, and by extension into the hearts, minds and conversations of consumers is a tantalising one and an ongoing challenge for the world’s biggest and most popular retailers but also for the artisan, maker and small independent retailers. The question is how. Enter brand activism and purpose-driven marketing. Or put a different way: offering consumers a brand’s stance on societal and political issues as a differentiating factor in a fast-paced marketplace.

Woke washing, on the other hand, is what happens when marketing communications don’t match actual business practice or when brands co-opt social movements out of a desire to simply get attention and cash in, rather than out of any genuine commitment or demonstrable concern for a cause.

Once a term used by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the call to stay ‘woke’ against oppression quickly entered the mainstream lexicon. Today the term has taken on a much broader tenor to refer to an overall awareness of inequality and the importance of tackling social, political and economic injustice.

But should big brands show they are alert to such issues? How do they do so in an authentic way? Should they even try? Seemingly there is a business case to be made for brands aligning themselves with customer values. A study by Accenture found that 63% of consumers ‘preferred to purchase from purpose-driven brands’.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer report found that a brand’s reputation, and the consumer’s trust in the brand, have significant impact on buying decisions. It found that 67% of people agreed with the statement, ‘A good reputation may get me to try a product, but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it.’

The message then, from a significant cohort of shoppers, is that having a bigger purpose and clear ethical values matter a great deal. It is no surprise that more brands are in a hurry to align themselves with a cause, make it part of their marketing strategy, and strive to be recognised as a voice of cultural and social significance. But, as author of Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer writes, ‘The uneasy balance between progressive values and corporate profitability means it’s all too easy to miss the mark, and do more damage than good to the brand, and sometimes to the cause in question, too.’

The risk is, while a good number of consumers say they expect big brands to
take a stand, there is no guarantee those same consumers will believe them when they do. In an article published on Vox, social critic and writer Amanda Mull questioned the sincerity of fashion and beauty brands’ involvement in the body positivity movement. ‘Now body positivity has shed its radical, practical goals in favour of an advocacy that’s entirely aesthetic and a problem that can be wholly solved by those looking to sell you something.’

Prominent members of the LGBTQ community have raised similar concerns over brands using the rainbow flag during pride month without demonstrating any real commitment to supporting LGBTQ organisations, financially or otherwise. There seems to be an interesting tension between people who want their favourite brands to speak up and do the right thing and those who are unconvinced that marketing campaigns can ever have a truly ethical dimension. Further still, others remain unimpressed by brands wading into controversy and flirting with complex, hot button political issues.

Does the significant reputational risk mean brands should steer clear of addressing social issues altogether? ‘Values-based marketing is an important consideration. The challenge is doing it in a way that avoids becoming part of the woke washing red tide,’ Schaefer cautioned.

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