Why woke-washing doesn't work

Being real has never been more valuable in marketing

Right now there are a number of charged issues being addressed in societies all over the world, and brands are trying to figure out how they fit into the discussion. It’s a dicey field to play on. 

This is no time to be inauthentically "woke." At Cannes in June, Unilever CEO Alan Jope warned against woke-washing, saying, "It threatens to further destroy trust in our industry when it’s already in short supply." It’s time for brands to be real and show what they are about. That idea might intimidate companies, but Unilever and Nike have proven that standing for ideals in the marketplace can meaningfully grow the business. 

And just last week at Advertising Week in New York, several panelists discussed how brands need to be purpose-driven and authentic at the same time. So, with the 2020s looming, let’s take a look at what it means for a brand to be real.

Authenticity wins
It’s worth noting that purpose-driven brands can keep it real by staying on brand. For instance, Burger King made an entertaining, well-received Whopper ad last year that explained the basics of the Net Neutrality federal policy - and took a stand on the issue. The ad features Burger King employees, which make customers (also likely to be actors) wait an unusually long amount of time for their food unless they pay a hefty toll. 

The ad reflects how the Net Neutrality debate has centered on the potential for fast internet lanes versus slower ones. The ad jokes that, if you want a Whopper any time soon, you have to pay to be in a faster lane. In the video, one cashier remarks: "Burger King corporation believes that they can sell more and make more money selling chicken sandwiches and chicken fries, so now they’re slowing down the access to the Whopper." The ad garnered tens of millions of views on social media. Young adult consumers most often appreciate such stances—61% of millennials and centennials prefer companies that stand for something. 

Taking action brings "real" results

 Outdoors-minded clothing and gear brands have a knack for walking the walk and not just talking the talk. For instance, in recent years, Patagonia has cemented its reputation as a company that’s concerned about national parks and the environment. It even has a digital content and volunteerism platform called ActionWorks that’s dedicated to the environment. And though the brand certainly has customers who politically lean to the right, it has publicly opposed the U.S. government’s moves to privatize parks and public lands. That’s not marketing or branding—that’s 100% real.

Truly, sometimes being a "real brand" means showing your company isn’t all about sales. Take Patagonia competitor REI, which since 2015 has closed all of its stores on Black Friday, telling employees and customers to "go outside" and enjoy nature instead of holiday shopping. What the retailer lost in revenue that day was made up for by what it won in brand affinity - and increased memberships - among those who appreciate a well-balanced life. 

These brands put their money where their mouth is. This underscores the importance of taking stances that are proactive instead of reactive, which often looks inauthentic.  

Indeed, being "real" has never been so crucial; after all, 69% of millennials worldwide are belief-driven buyers. They could be your customers—don’t blow it by being phony.

Keith Richey is senior director of marketing at Linkedin Marketing Solutions. 

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free