[Editor’s note: Much like the hashtag fails we saw lead to crisis management disasters so commonly a few years back, the trend of “woke-washing” — trying to champion popular causes to demonstrate what a good company you are while sweeping some not-so-positive things under the rug — has already led a number of major brands into the face of embarrassing backlash from the very audiences they were trying to impress. In this share from our colleague, reputation management expert Andrea Obston, you’ll find an examination of corporations who’ve created some trouble for themselves by trying to jump on the woke-washing train, as well as some advice on how to stay genuine and avoid sparking outrage against your own brand.]
How Companies Can Avoid the Sin of “Woke-Washing”
Woke-Washing is the latest trend of corporate sins. It’s been hurled at companies as diverse as Lacoste and Cadbury chocolates, and is a growing trend in various industries. Woke-washing is when a company tries to wash a dirty reputation in the waters of a trendy cause. It’s like the magician who gets the audience to look at his right hand while his left hand removes the wallet from the pocket of a clueless victim. “Look over here. Not over there.”
The reason companies are getting dinged for woke washing is that they have taken one idea – that millennials and Gen Y folks are drawn to companies with a conscience – and perverted it. The idea goes something like this: “Yes, we’re dumping chemicals into the river, so let’s do a campaign against bullying on the internet. That’ll distract them!” These companies believe they are showing they are aware of (woke) a big problem so they must be good guys. Ergo, younger consumers should see them as Aware and Trustworthy. Right?
Wrong! It doesn’t work that way. Companies that authentically champion causes that directly related to their stream of revenue – say CVS stopping the sale of cigarettes – use cause marketing to express their brand promises. Not to distract from it, but to support it. The most recent example of a company really being woke is Walmart’s decision, in the wake of multiple mass shootings, to no longer sell some kinds of ammunition.
For companies that really want to use their power and influence to make a positive impact on society, the key is authenticity. Does the taking up of the cause seem real and genuine? That is what younger consumers look for. They can smell an inauthentic campaign. And when they do, it becomes a joke on social media. Think of the social media backlash against the Pepsi “Black Lives Matter” commercial. Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice, summed up the ire of the crowd when she tweeted: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
Ways To Avoid The Woke Washing Label
Here are a few questions to settle before you take up a cause to avoid the charge of woke-washing:
- Does the issue fit with your existing brand? Nike’s controversial ads featuring the causes that have defined Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe are good examples here. The Nike brand is all about doing your own thing and standing behind what you believe. So, it fits. Their “Just Do It” slogan is based on the idea of self-determination and individuality.
- Are you willing to do the long-term work to align your brand with the purpose of the cause you’re considering? That means playing it out in your products, services and employee policies. “Bake social purpose into your brand values, behavior and – ideally – even your business model,” Tim Weber said in an article for PR Week called “Ten Ways Brands Can Avoid ‘Woke Washing.” By the way, once you decide on the cause, your support needs to go beyond a one-off effort. Consumers will see right through a one-time gesture and will label what you’ve done as a self-serving grab for attention.
- Do you really want to make meaningful change? The whole idea of being woke to a problem is that you not only recognize it but want to help solve it. It’s about honest effort to tackle some of society’s toughest issues. Think about Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision not to sell assault weapons or Starbucks becoming a founding member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. Will those efforts change the world? No. But both are serious attempts to make a dent in these problems in authentic ways.
- Is it all “fluff and stuff” or are you really going to put some resources and creativity behind tackling a problem? Barefoot Wines is an example of this done right. Since 1988, when they first supported the San Francisco Men’s chorus, they have been championing the LGBTQ movement in an authentic way. “For us, it’s about values and trying to show up as a brand authentically and inclusively in the public, but also internally with our employee base. Authentic to us means being an actual ally of the community,” said Anna Bell, VP of marketing for Barefoot. The company launched a content series two years ago for the LGBTQ community called “One Stride, Many Journeys” that highlights the journeys of those in the community to establish their own identities. They also hosted World Pride Day in New York City this year where they previewed their “Barefoot Bestie Label” This clever web-based campaign allowed people to make own wine labels with compliments for someone they admired or loved. Barefoot Wines donated $1 to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS for every label that people created online.
- Is there a real connection between what your company does and the cause? Too many brands, for example Burger King, find a “good” cause and jump into it without any logical connection between their company and the issue. What earned Burger King the woke washer label was their Real Meals campaign. It was supposed to bring attention to mental health issues. The initiative, done in partnership with Mental Health America, came out in May 2019 to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month. “No one is happy all the time. And that’s OK” was the tag line (a back-handed slap at McDonald’s Happy Meal, perhaps?). Reaction on Twitter was immediate and angry. One example is a tweet from comedy writer Sloane, which says: “congratulations to burger king for ending mental illness the same way kendall jenner and pepsi ended racism” [sic]. Although no one can think the idea of raising those issues was a bad thing, the relationship between Burger King products and the cause was simply not there. Woke washing in the extreme.
- Are you taking up a cause to divert consumers or paper over a corporate wrong? If you’re thinking of distracting angry consumers by supporting a good cause, you can expect them to see right through it. When a tobacco company wanted to take attention away from a rash of lawsuits in the 1990s it sponsored a tour to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. It fell flat. In fact, the Public Citizen Health Research Group said the tour. “…smears the Bill of Rights with the blood of all Americans killed as a result of smoking Marlboro and other Philip Morris cigarettes.” And when opioid giant Purdue Pharma brags on their site about their corporate social responsibility programs to “help address the opioid addiction crisis” you can practically hear the collective eye rolls.
- Are you ready for the backlash? Any company that takes up a cause should be prepared for criticism. Nike got it. Starbucks gets it regularly. You can expect it once you take a stand. What you need to decide is if you can handle the potential loss of business from those who are angered by your position. When you weigh this decision, consider the fact that some of them may not even be your customers. Nike ran those numbers, looked at their customers and decided to take the risk. They knew their typical customer was under the age of 35 and most (80 percent) held liberal to moderate views on social issues. “Nike knew there would be a backlash and risked a sizable portion of its business to strengthen the relationship with the young consumers who account for 90 percent of its revenue,” said social media marketing consultant and blogger, Mark Schaefer in his piece “Woke Washing: How purpose driven marketing is being hijacked.” Sure, there was backlash. Nike’s market value dropped by almost $4 billion dollars at first. But a week later it was even higher than before their launch of the campaign.
What This Means To Your Company
Throwing your company’s weight behind a good cause is both admirable and can be good for your company’s reputation and bottom line. But it must be authentic and not an attempt to distract from a negative situation. Without an genuine effort to make a real difference, what starts out to demonstrate that your company is woke to a problem could end up as a stain on your reputation. Do it right and everyone wins.