What is woke-washing, and why brands should avoid it

By Ann Amarawansa

11th February 2021

In the wake of a pandemic, natural disasters, and rising racial and political tensions, people across the globe have been mobilized into action like never before.

Increasingly over the last decade, the world has been experiencing a new form of activism powered by social media, where people can freely speak out and raise awareness of societal issues online. This has led to massive social movements, boycotts, and real-world change. It has also meant a shift in consumer perceptions and tastes.

A recent report found that 68% of consumers expect brands to take a stand on social issues, and may boycott a brand based on its stance on those issues.

Even before the events of 2020, we saw a shift towards conscious consumption, with more brands showcasing their values. With our current social climate, the expectation for brands and corporations to demonstrate ethical and progressive business practices have never been higher.

This has prompted many brands to resort to a new trend in marketing, which has been coined ‘woke-washing.’ But what is it? And why is woke-washing an issue?

What is woke-washing?

Woke-washing is when companies and brands exploit a social cause for financial or reputational gain, marketing themselves as caring about social issues, without backing it up with action.

A brand that claims to care about the environment but doesn’t make sure to use recycled materials could be seen as woke-washing, as could a brand that claims to champion women but has a gender pay-gap.

The hypocrisy at the heart of woke-washing is what many audiences find most distasteful. All marketing is self-serving: yet many brand marketers or CMOs seem to think they should get a pat on the back for doing what many would see as the bare minimum, while not actually delivering on even that.

Why brands should avoid woke-washing

Woke-washing shows a brand to be inherently untrustworthy, one that is willing to manipulate the truth or outright lie to seem more palatable to an audience which is demanding more than just flashy ad campaigns or easy slogans.

With the world the way it is right now, more young people than ever before looking for someone to say to them: ‘You are right, things can and should be better’. This means brands see a market to be catered to, these people’s beliefs can be co-opted, branded, and monetised.

As consumers have become increasingly savvy to marketing tactics, they are also less forgiving of brand missteps, leading to brands being called out online or even boycotted.

Examples of woke-washing in marketing:

Gillette

When Gillette released “The Best Men Can Be,” a campaign fighting toxic masculinity and referencing #MeToo, it received criticism and was accused of woke-washing. And while the subject of masculinity is within the brand’s ownable territory, the advert seemingly missed the mar through its clumsy and forced messaging.

Chevron

The fossil fuel industry is one of the worst offenders when it comes to business practices in general, but the last few years have seen more and more examples of woke-washing from oil companies trying to seem in touch with modern values, which are, of course, antithetical to the values of an oil company.

Chevron tweeting about Black Lives Matter strikes as a particularly galling attempt at woke-washing, given the tangible harm the company has inflicted on communities of colour in America and around the world.

Pride

While the numerous Pride organisations and marches throughout the world have been a unanimous force for good, almost every brand under the sun has started to splash rainbow colours over their logo every pride month.

Yet many of these brands will have woefully low figures of actual LGBTQIA+ people working for them, or actively discriminate against them when it comes to their hiring process.

Again, all of these examples show the hypocrisy inherent in woke-washing. Brands should look at their own practices first, before launching into a new campaign on whatever issue is trending that month.

How brands can show their values without being accused of woke-washing

Authenticity is key

Purpose must go beyond a marketing campaign. It has to be baked into what the brand is, what it does, and how it operates.

Brands should consider whether they have the authority and experience to enter into a debate, or to talk about an issue if it isn’t directly related to what they do.

It’s important to consider what is integral to your business. What do you want to stand for? What can you stand for, genuinely, authentically? Once you have a firm grip on this, you can find a genuine purpose that supports your values as a brand.

Brands promoting their social purpose and values must back it up with action

It’s likely that people will always be sceptical of brands supporting social issues and movements, and businesses should expect questions about their true intentions. That’s why it is so important for brands to have tended to their own gardens first, and have gotten their affairs in order before launching campaigns.

Brands have power to make actual steps to solving these issues through established platforms, resources, and influence. These are tools they can and should use to make real progress.

Brands must be consistent with their social initiatives

Lastly, it’s not enough to do a single campaign and claim that your company has changed, or that you’re a proud partner of a marginalised community after a one-off tweet.

The sexual wellness space has mastered this in recent years, with brands like Bodyform and Always tapping into specific conversations around sexual health, such as destigmatizing menstruation, inclusive products for people other than cis-gendered women, and period poverty.

Bodyform, in particular, is revolutionizing marketing in the sexual wellness space through campaigns such as “Blood Normal,” which showed actual blood instead of a generic blue liquid, their “Viva la vulva” campaign, and most recently #WombStories, which depicted the taboo subjects around women’s bodies including IVF treatment, menopausal hot flushes, and miscarriages.

Unlike Gillette’s infamous advert, Bodyform has succeeded in finding a purpose — normalizing female bodies and experiences — by constantly proving its commitment and contribution to the issue. Rather than a one-off campaign that is jumping on a trend, all of Bodyform’s outward activity is related to its brand purpose.

The emergence of ‘woke capitalism’ has seen consumers of all ages become more sceptical of corporate values, and demand new levels of authenticity and transparency, where companies demonstrate genuine action and that leads to change, either in their business or the wider world.

It’s clear that the woke-washing phenomenon is not going anywhere and will likely keep growing. But as marketers, advertisers, and communications professionals, we have a shared responsibility — both professionally and ethically — to help guide our clients in finding a real purpose that aligns with their brand values, and to go out and make genuine change.

Read more of our marketing tips for 2021.