Woke Washing: How purpose driven marketing is being hijacked

woke washing

By Mark Schaefer

I’ve said in this space and on the podcast that marketers flock to whatever is popular until they ruin it.

Here is the next thing to be ruined: “purpose.” Fasten your seatbelts. We are entering  a new era of “woke washing.”

The business case for purpose

First, let’s establish that as a core strategy, aligning with customer values can be a smart idea, even an essential marketing idea.

In my book Marketing Rebellion, I reported on research that showed creating “shared meaning” with a customer is one of the last things we have left that can deliver true, actionable loyalty with customers. About 65 percent of your customers will only buy based on meaning and 20 percent of them will spend up to a 25 more over your competitors.

woke washingResearch has shown for years that this trend is building but marketers have been slow to respond. Perhaps the sonic boom of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick promotion was the wake up call that sent companies scrambling to find their customer-led purpose.

Futurist Faith Popcorn said, “Advertising is dead. Over. Culture is the new media. Don’t buy an ad. Put your brand’s belief into the culture.”

The question is … “how?”

Woke washing

Companies everywhere are clamoring to be more sensitive, more gay, more #MeToo, or whatever the purpose du jour may be. Marketers are commodifying social movements, piling on to the latest cause to “out-purpose” the competition without taking the time to check their own company values and culture.

Speaking at the Cannes Lions Festival, Unilever CEO Alan Jope warned that “woke washing” — brands running purpose-driven campaigns, but failing to take real action — threatens to “infect” the advertising industry. “It threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply,”Jope said.

True to Jope’s comments, consumers expect brands to be socially responsible, and yet trust in brands taking these purpose-led positions is down, per Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer. While 81 percent of consumers said they consider brand trust in their purchasing decisions, only 34 percent actually trust the brands they buy from. 53 percent of consumers think brands aren’t as committed to society as they claim.

Meanwhile, 41 percent of consumers admit to distrusting brand messages and 73 percent use ad blocking tools, up 10 points from last year’s survey.

Woke washing in action

My friend James Hahn sent me this Instagram post as an example of his disgust with marketers climbing on the purpose train in insensitive ways:

woke washing

“Rainbow” might be a social movement or a beloved symbol of civil rights activism, but the day we think it is a marketing strategy is the day marketers have seriously lost their way.

As companies appropriate legitimate social causes to sell toilet paper and televisions, the reputation of all purpose-led marketing efforts suffers.

The beginning of purpose, the end of purpose

I am starting to see books and conferences popping up on purpose-driven marketing.

That is a sure sign that the lemming-march over the values-based marketing cliff has begun. “Purpose” is about to be the next great idea ruined by marketers.

As I stated at the top of this post, 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.

If a values-based marketing strategy seems right for you, I’ve examined dozens of success stories (and failures) and believe there are some common themes that can help you avoid woke washing and accomplish success in an authentic way.

(These ideas come from my book Marketing Rebellion).

1. Be clear on your values.

Does your external marketing stand truly reflect the DNA of your company?

  • Discover your purpose. Why do you do what you do? Start there. Is this grounded in tradition alone, or does the company’s reason for being need to be updated with a modern lens?
  • Validate social tension. Once you’re clear on your values, how does this connect to your customers? What’s getting in the way of the customers living out their values? Taking aim at this societal tension and aligning it with the brand’s passion leads to a sense of purpose and direction for activation.
  • Use your unique voice. Having a “true north” expressed as purpose can become a differentiator if the intent is right and the expression fits the brand’s mission and personality. Ultimately, the potential of purpose is to act as a filter for all actions and communications from the brand.

Want to see values in action? An example: Check out Patagonia’s “Our Reason for Being”.

2. Create rock-solid alignment.

Marketing today is not just about your “why,” it’s also about your customer’s “why.”

Of course it makes sense for Patagonia to take a stand against legislation that opens up protected land to development. Sure,  Airbnb to connect on issues of public housing. And it’s great that retailer American Eagle is taking a position that empowers the treasured values of its teen customers.

When these companies take a stand, it’s logical because the position aligns with their core mission and the values of their customers.

Brand identity has been the single most important factor for increasing sales and ensuring growth since the dawn of capitalism. But a brand today is no longer just a symbol, logo, or tagline. A brand must include the promise of what the customer will experience emotionally and even politically.

3. Take a measured risk.

If you decide to take a stand, you can’t change your mind or you risk becoming a meme – or worse. This decision must be carefully considered based on research and insight.

You’d better believe Nike ran the numbers before making their bold political move with Colin Kaepernick.

Two-thirds of Nike customers are under the age of 35. A large-scale study of the political views of this demographic showed that nearly 80 percent hold liberal to moderate views on social issues. A young consumer who can afford $200 shoes likely has substantial disposable income and lives in a city. The term for this demographic? Progressive.

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.

Indeed, there was a backlash. In one day, Nike’s market value dropped by nearly $4 billion dollars. But one week later, its market value was even higher than before the volatile campaign began.

The math? Nike just did it.

4. Be congruent.

Political positioning tends to backfire if it appears that the stance is a one-off or an attempt by the company to selfishly grab attention. In every case the brand stand strategy has succeeded, the company has demonstrated its values in many ways, continuously over time.

A values-based marketing strategy will only work if the values are aligned not just with the consumers but also with the actions of the company itself.

Human rights, racism, civil liberties, global warming – these are extremely complex issues that aren’t going to be solved through a sensational ad campaign.

American Eagle demonstrated leadership by placing its money, its influence, and its workforce in service of the values it also displays in its marketing.

Marketing isn’t just about making promises, it’s about keeping promises.

5. Emphasize action over words.

Most people believe that brands have more power to solve social issues than the government.

But they want more than words in an ad campaign. Companies need to be active and visible in their customer communities, fighting for their preferred causes.

Microsoft Chairman Satya Nadella wrote: “Multinationals can no longer be the memes they’ve become – soulless, bloodless entities that enter a nation or a region simply to take rent from the locals. The job of a multinational is more important than ever. It needs to operate everywhere in the world, contributing to local communities in positive ways – sparking growth, competitiveness, and opportunity for all. How can we help our local partners and startups grow? How can we help the public sector become more efficient? How can we help solve the most pressing issues in society?”

6. Take care with creative treatments.

The presentation of these brand/consumer values must be confident but sensitive. It would be arrogant for a brand to suggest they are a solution. They can be a bridge to a solution or a platform for discussion. This must be supported through expert creative treatments.

Nothing can undo a brand image faster than good intentions presented in an inappropriate perspective.

7. Be ready for the heat.

The organization must be completely aligned at every level and prepared for repercussions when, predictably, certain consumer groups rebel against the idea. Can your corporate culture withstand a controversy? Can your career?

And don’t forget to be prepared for the internal reaction. If you take a stand that your customers love but your employees hate, can you still operate as a company?

Employee voices are increasingly playing a role in whether companies take sides on political issues. Tech companies, for example, had little to gain strategically by opposing U.S. immigration policies. But Microsoft and Google found it impossible to remain silent in the face of employee demands for a response to what they regarded as an assault on company values.

8. Consider the first-move advantage.

If your customers expect you to take a position to align with their values and you don’t, that is, in effect, taking a stand.

It may also make you vulnerable. What’s the risk of not taking a stand on an issue and then having your competitor roll out a meaning-based campaign?

Nike made a bold move. Would a values-based marketing campaign by a competitor like Adidas or Under Armour seem unoriginal, or even desperate?

There are only so many “values” to go around. American Eagle’s research led them to a highly focused strategy supporting gun control and civil liberties. I don’t think a competing retailer in their category could now mimic their aggressive and consistent strategy. American Eagle is owning the hearts of core customers by aligning with their values and by being the first to do it.

I want to emphasize once again that I’m not being prescriptive. You have to make the right decisions for your business. I’m just laying out the options.

9. Have a crisis plan.

In our fast-changing and complex world, it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality. It’s difficult for even seasoned professionals to predict what could suddenly ignite into controversy. So, hope for the best and plan for the worst. If your company decides to take a controversial stand, have an executive team and PR professionals standing by for a few days after the announcement.

Get involved

Taking a stand that demonstrates your values doesn’t have to be expensive, risky, or complicated.

Find groups in your community that share your values and need your help. Sponsor their events, donate your services, and better yet, show up. Let people see how you care. Don’t just lend a hand. Be the hand. That’s what people want and need from you.

The most human company wins.

Go. Be that company for your community.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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