Why Brands Should Consider Being Woke

Of late, brands have woken from their corporate slumber to take stances on socio-political issues. Diversity, racial and gender inequality, LGBT rights are just a few of the issues which companies have been addressing and incorporating into their brand—from marketing campaigns to core business values and beliefs.

Leading this politically aware pack is rebellion’s poster child Nike, which succeeded in raising eyebrows doing what other sports brands wouldn’t dare to do–courting the controversial Colin Kaepernick in its latest ad campaign. Nike is not alone in receiving heat for its marketing campaigns. Citibank became the first Wall Street Bank to restrict firearms sales by its business customers – a move both lauded and criticised by people on either sides of the gun control debate.

Enter purpose-driven brands, the latest entities to dominate today’s saturated, hyper-politicised media landscape. While maintaining an opinion used to be a right enjoyed solely by humans, the companies of the 21st century bear little resemblance to their corporate cousins from the previous century. Today, companies who fight the good fight resemble a sentient humanoid with well-rounded, coherent, and informed views on sensitive socio-political issues.

By right, the phenomenon of corporations being politically aware is not new — there have always been some who considered activism to be as important as their bottom-lines, if not more. In the Eighties, ice-cream company Ben and Jerry’s went against the grain by extending health benefits to same-sex couples–almost unprecedented in a time when homosexuality was deemed unnatural. The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick dedicated her entire life to being a vocal advocate for animal rights and environmental causes also while also managing a multi-million-dollar skincare and beauty business.

When firms assume positions on sensitive issues, they transcend their status as capitalist entities and resemble full-fledged humans. In short, by espousing the views of their consumer base they become just like the person they serve, or hope to serve.

Of course, brands with a global reach are likely to have a customer base diverse in thought and belief. Choosing a side in any hotly-debated political topic means alienating some customers on the socio-political spectrum–but also winning the endorsement of several others.

Down with the Youth

Many young people of today no longer view corporations (or capitalism, for that matter) as a positive force. Social media has made it much easier to document and scrutinise in detail the shortcomings of corporate entities. As millennials are one of the biggest consumers of online content, they have no difficulty in accessing vast amounts of information about the companies they patronise. More and more youngsters are taking time to educate themselves on critical socio-political and economic topics, and expect the same from the entities providing them with goods and services.

There is plenty of research to suggest that more young people resonate strongly with “woke” brands than other generations. Gen-Zs are a force to be reckoned with and command considerable financial influence. As a result, companies must work harder to retain relevance with those aged 16-35–and not just perform lip service in the form of rainbow filters and themed merchandise. Levi’s, American Eagle, and Converse are examples of companies who talk the talk and walk the walk–in addition to selling LGBT merchandise, they work with and donate to several organisations which support marginalised communities. Conversely, several consumers have boycotted fast food chain Chick-Fil-A, which reiterated its stance against gay marriage.

Look Beyond Yourself

The relationships brands share with consumers can no longer simply be transactional. Nowadays, people make informed choices regarding products, taking into account not only their own selves but also the wider ecosystem. For instance, consumers are turning to “ethically/responsibly sourced” or “cruelty-free/vegan” products (clothes, food, make-up) which are not environmentally detrimental. When a company goes out of its way to do good, it usually wins the unwavering support of loyal consumers.

If the corporations they patronise do not share their value system or do not make good on their promises, consumers will simply find another company whose actions resonate with their belief system. Consumers in the 21st century seek affirmation through the products and services they consume, and consider factors such as sustainability, inclusivity, and quality to be an integral part of their purchase and consumption journey. Urban Decay Cosmetics, Fenty Beauty, Patagonia and H&M are companies which put sustainability and inclusivity at the core of their businesses.

Court Quality Employees

The implications of a socially conscious brand extend not only to consumers, but also to employees. More millennials and Gen Z-ers are gravitating towards companies whose political stances and actions echo their own. Employees are likely to be happier and more productive in a socially-conscious firm. As an employer, if attracting the next generation of talented changemakers is a priority, then it’s time to start speaking to them in a language they understand.

Of course, purpose-driven brands are not without their naysayers. People proclaim that by latching themselves onto pressing issues, companies are distracting the gullible from considering their “dark deeds”. Keen observers of pop culture have been quick to point how the patterns of brands suddenly becoming social justice warriors is nothing more than late-stage capitalism — a ploy where companies use emotionally-charged marketing tactics to get tongues wagging, generating traction for themselves. In the case of a sports brand whose hard-hitting rebranding campaign proved to be highly profitable, netizens brought to light its unethical and inhumane business practices in foreign countries.

Picking a side is a risky move, both socially and financially. While established companies can weather consumer boycotts and other controversies, smaller firms struggling to establish themselves might not fare so well–unless they have very clearly defined goals and visions from the get-go.

Brands who wish to embrace a meaningful cause in addition to their business endeavours must be consistent in their efforts. For instance, a brand which champions gender equality while underpaying its female employees is clearly faking its wokeness to exploit the emotions of liberal youth. Its cause of choice must be relevant to the history or culture of the brand–if not, its efforts will appear to be shoehorned in and insincere.

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