Now that being woke has gone mainstream, corporate America has predictably seized the moment and is weighing in on all matters political. Brands are increasingly deploying belief-driven messaging as a means of engaging with audiences, reminding us of their sophistication and good character by inserting themselves into weighty social issues and gaining a ton of free earned media in the process.
The problem is, the strategy suffers from overuse, and I suspect a lot of people are beginning to see some of these campaigns for what they are: tone-deaf pandering, opportunism couched in advocacy. Cheap shots from the cheap seats.
Remember Starbucks’ cringeworthy 2015 gaffe, where hapless baristas were forced to engage in face-to-face conversations with customers about racial matters? We’re at the point where this kind of quasi-parodic lip-service is becoming the norm. When Oreo in February tweeted that “trans people exist,” it largely fell on deaf ears—and I’m guessing a few rolled eyes—presumably because many of us caught the chloroform whiff of corporatism behind the sentiment. The conscripted nature of these protestations often feels forced, facile, canned. Brands making big statements without committing to actually doing anything. Companies that get to cast the illusion that they’ve moved society in a positive direction, when in reality, all they did was post a tweet.
Brands, of course, have the right to say whatever they want. And I’m not claiming brands should necessarily curb their political ambitions, or refrain from making moral pronouncements. I’m simply suggesting that we’re increasingly beginning to look at these messages with a jaundiced eye, in part because we’re beginning to recognize the hands of marketing working behind them. And when that spell fails, we begin to see the messengers as bad actors, which is exactly not the kind of message any brand wants to send.
Conventional wisdom—for the past several years, anyway—has been that brands should publicly align themselves with today’s pressing political and social causes. They should do so because, news flash, study after study shows consumers are more attuned than ever to how their purchasing behaviors impact the world, and as a result, want to support companies that share their values.
Enter the age of the performatively woke brand. Politics has become a kind of fashion accessory for corporate America these days, a way to profit from protest. Big business’ newfound altruism-as-a-marketing-strategy got a shot in the arm during the Trump era, when many Americans turned to the private sector for succor because they realized a do-nothing government wasn’t going to move the needle on important environmental, civil and societal issues. This set off a dramatic rift between conservative state and Federal leaders and our newly-enlightened corporate world that continues today. Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2018 stopped selling assault weapons after lawmakers cowed to the NRA in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting. The NBA drew the ire of the Chinese government after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spoke out in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. And this year, Major League Baseball, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola have all publicly condemned Georgia’s controversial voting restriction laws.
Many progressive Americans have embraced this development in our culture wars. The problem is, in calling upon the private sector to rescue democracy, we’re essentially making the corporate world stewards of it. This isn’t going to end well. At the risk of stating the obvious, corporations don’t run on benevolence; they say what consumers want to hear because it’s in their best financial interests to do so, regardless of what corner of the political spectrum the loudest conversations happen to be coming from. And I don’t think the world we’re currently working to create—where corporations set the yardstick for what’s morally acceptable behavior—is the world most of us want. Suffice to say, a company that fires an employee for a homophobic tweet she/he wrote as a teenager for easy PR points isn’t something to applaud.
Admittedly, the private sector’s forays into “woke washing” aren’t without benefit: The silver lining here is that our politically-aware climate has lent a conscience to corporations that, for decades, were notoriously silent on social issues. Even if we recognize that brands are simply working the levers of public opinion to increase awareness and boost market share, it deserves to be said that people are convincing the private sector to say and do things it wouldn’t have done 10 years ago. That’s a big deal.
The critical distinction is that there remains a gaping divide between good words—even good words fronting good intentions—and actual advocacy. Maybe that’s why it’s hard for some to take Amazon’s placement of a Black Lives Matter banner on its website seriously, considering its history of anti-union tactics. Or the fact that Oreo parent Mondelez International apparently wasn’t woke enough to avoid being named in a class action lawsuit this year filed by former child slaves who alleged the company engaged in forced labor practices on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations. Actions, as it turns out, always go a lot farther than words.