Devraj Basu
Guest Article

Are you 'woke-washing' your brand?

I had an interesting recent catch-up with an ex-client — caretaker of a reasonably big personal care brand in the country. While quick to point out the rapid strides his brand has made in recent years, and that too, in these challenging times, he made a ‘modest’ confession to me. “It’s not really the numbers, but the purpose that the brand has honestly stood for that makes me so proud as one of its custodians.” He was quick to point out very glibly the difference between an ‘honest brand purpose’ where there is ‘real’ investment over time and the opportunistic lip-service that the many so-called purposive brands practice today. He went on to pass me, with a flourish, the document that kind of sealed his claim.

And there, in my hand I held a neatly produced book in English on ‘women empowerment’ (broadly the brand’s purpose) telling today’s women how to and where to seek help from, in this admittedly unfair world. My friend went on to explain how these books would get distributed at the end of, the now regularly held, workshops with young executives of various corporate houses in the metros.

Nothing wrong with the purpose, nor the workshops or the book that proposed to espouse it — I was sure that the whole process was so unabashedly exclusive — for a popular mass brand serving middle and even lower middle economic sections of the Indian society. Workshops that wouldn’t even reach out to five per cent of the community it is proposing to serve, and even better, an explanatory book in English that can be understood by less than 10 per cent of the same community, even if each member of that community could be (by some miracle) handed their own personal copies.

And there it was — a living, breathing testimony of ‘woke washing’ — unfortunately something our dear brand had chosen to guard against in the first place.

Amongst the scariest phrases that one would hear in the advertising corridors across the globe today is, “Our brand needs a purpose.” Of course they all do. Research continually shows that millennials want brands that ‘do and mean something’.

And while campaigns must be dramatic talking points to capture attention in an age where the average consumer is exposed to some 10,000 ads a day, these necessarily need to be backed by solid, sustainable and common-sense actions that support the very idea/ideal.

Ideally, actions that draw inspiration from the core equity of the brand and actually precede the campaign (not follow them).

For today, while it might be cool to have a beautiful ‘purpose’, what definitely sticks out as uncool (and never forgiven), is to be caught out a hypocrite. And hence the term ‘woke washing’ — after ‘green-washing’ (referring to attempts at cynically leveraging the consumers’ concern for the physical environment without really having one’s skin in the game).

Simply put, being ‘woke’ means being aware, knowing what’s going on in the community (related to socio-political injustice).

‘Woke-washing’ is, corporations making questionable claims about their commitment to such social issues to essentially curry favour with today’s conscious consumers.

While blatant ‘exclusivity’ is what the cited attempt at ‘woke’ was suffering from, the other ‘washing’ instance frequently experienced is a kind of idealism that is devoid of realism, and therefore (mostly) impossible for the consumer to relate to.

And there are examples galore around us.

We all remember the Pepsi ad from a few years back, where student protesters are engaging in a hunger strike to force college administrators to change their policies, until one protester spots a Pepsi. He blows the whole thing because he can't resist the delicious beverage. A big hotchpotch of idealism, irreverence — and far removed from realism. (And the bigger trouble was that it made a mockery of the actual protests done by the then students of Films and Television Institute at Pune – of course something later denied by Pepsi.)

When Victoria's Secret wanted to advertise options in women's underwear, it suggested a variety of body types. But in its ad, the corporation cast only perfect models. Given advertising's long history of pushing unattainable body image ideals (that are known to be harmful), this is another glaring example of ‘woke-washing’ and lip-service ‘idealism’. And just comparing it a moment with the communication content for Dove over the years, brings out this hypocrisy even more starkly. While Dove, both in its ideal and practicing ideas, has been consistent, vs many others, has not put its money where its mouth is.

Victoria's Secret - The Perfect Body
Victoria's Secret - The Perfect Body

This bit about practicing what one preaches seems to be at the core really. In other words it is plain ‘honesty’, intellectual honesty that is. Any social mission is about action not just words. So when a large multinational corporation like Pepsi talks about political freedom (the Kendall Jenner commercial which ultimately had to be withdrawn), or a Gillette breaks a big campaign like ‘We believe’ (‘Gillette – the best a man can be’ campaign), the empowered consumer of today is most likely to check how much of those corporations’ skin is actually in the game.

Committing 0.02 per cent of its $6 billion turnover per year for the next three years to non-profit organisations designed to inspire and educate men become role models for the next generation is for all purposes a token gesture from Gillette.

It is worse for Pepsi. Getting social media force, Kendall Jenner, and the brand's attempt to piggyback on deeply held convictions around politics and social justice, just didn’t seem right.

“There are certain things that you cannot co-opt,” as one commentator said. “It only makes sense for companies to tie into a social cause if they are somehow invested in the social cause. What has Pepsi ever done from a political standpoint? Nothing.”

Any attempt at ‘woke’ not rooted in the product per se gets watched with scepticism. And naturally, not remembered in the right context.

Consumers today believe only in their friends and family (not even Facebook), and as research suggests, increasingly observe campaigns from a critical distance.

Forget advertising, for there is a larger context here. Notwithstanding the abundant information available, this is a time when factual information is a necessity, and each of us around the world deserves access to true information with integrity at its heart.

The author is executive vice-president at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi.