Brand purpose or ‘woke-washing’ ?

One of the stories to come out of Cannes this year is Unilever’s CEO’s assertion that brands are in danger of  “polluting” their purpose messaging with “woke-washing”.

For those that don’t know, “woke” is shorthand for becoming aware of areas of social injustice. It’s used both by people discussing social justice issues and by those who go out of their way to mock them.

Unilever’s CEO argues that some brands are so concerned about appearing to be on the right side of various societal debates that the messaging around their brand purpose suffers (something we wrote about on LinkedIn on Monday). 

Genuine purpose or wokewashing? 

Purpose was definitely a big theme at Cannes this year. But it’s more than a buzzword. A study by Accenture found that 63% of consumers “preferred to purchase from purpose-driven brands.” Edelman’s Trust Barometer report found that a brand’s reputation, and the consumer’s trust in the brand, has a significant impact on buying decisions (it found that 67% of people agreed with the statement: “A good reputation may get me to try a product, but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it”). 

Research has shown that consumers crave authenticity from brands, with one study reporting that 90% of consumers said that authenticity was important in deciding what brands to support. 

Brands are getting the message loud and clear. Purpose matters. Cue lots of brands suddenly appearing to care about climate change, equality, social justice. Rainbow flags flutter over logos during Pride month. Ads are recast to show diversity. ‘Woke-washing’ becomes a thing. 

People aren’t stupid. They can tell when a brand is blatantly using social issues to sell products (remember the backlash against the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad in 2017?). So purpose has to be genuine, not just part of a marketing campaign. 

That means being able to point at what you’ve done, not just what you’ve said, as part of that purpose. What action has the business taken? Are its teams as diverse as its advertising? How does it support equality, or create a culture of inclusion? What action is it taking to reduce waste, or carbon emissions? Once a brand has acted on its purpose, only then it can communicate it. 

Real purpose takes real commitment, and a real desire to create change. That desire starts with a brand’s leadership, and runs all the way through the organisation, not just the marketing department.

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