Robby Mathew
Guest Article

How brand purpose turned into woke washing while we were busy making ads

What's common in woke washing and overnight mugging?

This being exam season and all, I simply cannot resist the urge to use it to make my point. Woke washing is to purpose-led marketing what overnight mugging is to truly learning and understanding a subject. And if I were to borrow from a much-reported, much-mocked example from Trump’s recent visit, it is to build a wall to hide the problem, instead of rolling up your sleeves and solving the real problem.

Woke washing is here because purpose-led marketing was here earlier.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said, 'Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.'

While traditional marketing aims to get the brand and the consumer to look longingly into each others’ eyes, purpose-led marketing seeks to find a shared value/passion that both can look at together.

The reason being that today’s young consumers are drawn to brands with purpose that goes beyond profit and customer delight. They are looking for brands with a conscience. Brands that want to bring about a positive change in the world. And when the brand’s purpose resonates with the consumer’s value system, a long-term connection is possible.

Practiced properly, purpose-led marketing will allow brands to connect with customers in ways they have never done before. But the smog called woke washing is rolling into this paradise and polluting it. It is largely because brand custodians are using brand purpose as an excuse to simply come up with a new advertising campaign for the brand.

Brand after brand is latching on to causes – LGBTQ rights, female infanticide, rural hygiene, equal pay, animal rights, forest dweller rights……

It is almost like – you, my competitor, have appropriated sensitivity to the environment, so I will outdo you with sensitivity to transsexuals……

Look closely, and you can see the customers collectively rolling their eyes.

Brand communication is increasingly resembling those reality shows where participant after participant share stories of their struggles, and underprivileged backgrounds. Many times the sob story module is meatier than the talent demonstration section!

Woke washing is inadvertently reinforcing the very thing it was trying to overcome – the distrust, disinterest, distraction and detachment of consumers.

So, is it the end of the road for purpose-led marketing? Are we to abandon the ship and look for the next trend? No. Not at all. It just has to be done right. It has to come from an authentic place.

(The author is chief creative officer, FCB Interface.)