Brands struggle to make ‘woke’ marketing work

Reaching out to a new generation of consumers that grew up skipping ads on YouTube is an ongoing challenge for brands. But how do companies show they are alert to political and social injustice in an authentic way? More importantly, should they even try?

Consumers are more socially aware than ever before. They increasingly want to engage with brands that support humanitarian and social issues, and are demanding ethical products and services which aim to give back. But brand advertising is still struggling to strike the right balance between aligning with customer values and being “woke” – aware of social and political injustice – in a credible way.

A 2018 survey by Edelman found 69 per cent of millennials across the world are belief-driven buyers, suggesting that a brand’s product and its principles inspire purchases equally. Over the years, it’s become increasingly difficult for brands to convince consumers that attempts to create purposeful ad campaigns are authentic. This has become even more difficult with the growing influence of social media and its focus on social injustice and activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Gillette’s recent The Best a Man Can Be campaign evoked reaction across the industry and among the wider public with its socially-charged theme. The slogan was a clear diversion from the brand’s infamous The Best a Man Can Get, which has been championed over the past 30 years. But how and why did it spark such a reaction?

Gillette’s infamous advert split the brand’s fan base

Many felt it wasn’t Gillette’s place or role to touch on themes such as toxic masculinity and the #MeToo movement; others believed the brand had taken a clear stance and had urged its customers to do the same.

Sarah Sandford, planning director at Isobel, says Gillette’s stance is a brave response to growing commentary around toxic masculinity. “While adverts that try to tap into social movements can fall flat – look at the tone-deaf Pepsi #blacklivesmatter ad, for example – if brands are prepared to address issues honestly and provocatively, they can make a huge impact,” she says.

Gillette didn’t aim to sell a product in the advert, but to tell an important story and the honesty in the brand’s approach was visible due to its tone. “In the case of Gillette, an old-school brand that is an icon of traditional masculinity, they took a hard look at their own past to challenge reductive stereotypes about gender and champion a new, healthy image,” says Ms Sandford.

Clothing and fashion retailer United Colors of Benetton has long built a reputation of using shock advertising tactics to respond to wider social justice issues. In 2000, art director Oliviero Toscani created arguably his most controversial and polarising campaign during an 18-year tenure at the company, which featured prison inmates on death row in the United States. Capital punishment was a key issue in the presidential race at the time.

In the end, Mr Toscani was fired for his last act, but the brand had proven itself to be authentic, given its previous reputation. So, was the world ready for this style of advertising? Perhaps more pertinently, how would such a campaign be received today?

pullstats on brands and their messaging

“Woke” marketing can backfire if brands send mixed messages

Other recent examples are certainly more complicated and highlight concerns regarding the authenticity of brands attempting to create woke advertising, such as Nike’s ad in September featuring American footballer and activist Colin Kaepernick, who controversially left the NFL in 2017 after refusing to stand for the US national anthem before games. The ad read: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.

Last year, Nike extended its deal as the NFL’s uniform supplier to 2028, despite the Kaepernick issue that began in 2016. From a consumer perspective, Nike’s stance and position on the NFL’s treatment of Kaepernick becomes murky, thus raising questions about the authenticity of the ad.

What can advertisers learn from these examples? Firstly, they should begin by telling a compelling story that consumers can relate to. To engage consumers on a deeper, emotional level, brands need to ask themselves why audiences should care.

This year’s Super Bowl earned the lowest TV ratings among US audiences since 2009, with a viewership of 98.2 million compared with 112 million in 2016, the last Super Bowl before Kaepernick took the knee. The figures raise questions of whether the NFL’s public perception in the following years led to a decrease in viewership of one of the most prestigious events in sport.

Keeping ads in-line with a brand’s values can boost loyalty and trust

How people respond is just as important as wanting them to respond. If the brand’s goal is to achieve a certain level of media impact, then controversy for controversy’s sake is just fine. However, for brands attempting to encourage consumers to take a clear stance, the campaign’s message has to align with a human, primal feeling that cuts through the need to sell a product or service.

By urging consumers to buy into a campaign’s message based on the brand’s principles, they are far more likely to build loyalty and trust. As brands often fail at attempting to capture audiences through woke advertising, consumer trust is often subject to approval.

Christi Tronetti, managing partner at Isobel, says: “There’s a time and a place for everything. If it’s genuine, if the brand has something to say that’s unique and will move the conversation forward, then fantastic. But consumers know a fake when they see it, so tread carefully and thoughtfully.”

Who can predict whether the trend is here to stay, but generation Z’s spending power will continue to grow and they are certainly far more tech-savvy and socially aware than generations before them. They are the generation that grew up skipping ads on YouTube. To win their trust, brands will need to ensure they themselves believe in the principles and values they uphold.

The future is woke, but only if brands first believe in the principles and core values they champion.