Woke washing — the inappropriate use of social issues or causes for marketing gain — threatens to undermine well-intentioned cause-related marketing and weaken customer trust in corporations and brands.

More than a few surveys show that consumers want corporations to take stands on issues and promote social change. Many consumers, especially millennials, say they’re more likely to patronize businesses that support causes.

Brands have taken note. Purpose-driven marketing has become the latest shiny new object in PR and marketing circles. While some call the campaigns savvy PR moves, many call them woke washing. Too many companies support a cause with lip service but fail to question their own values and flimsy motives or to follow through with meaningful action.

woke washing threatens marketing credibility

Image source: Ian Kennedy via Flickr

“Companies everywhere are clamoring to be more sensitive, more gay, more #MeToo, or whatever the purpose du jour may be,” frets marketing expert Mark Schaefer. “Marketers are commodifying social movements, piling on to the latest cause to “out-purpose” the competition without taking the time to check their own company values and culture.”

Woke washing may destroy PR and marketing credibility and purpose-driven marketing in particular. “As companies appropriate legitimate social causes to sell toilet paper and televisions, the reputation of all purpose-led marketing efforts suffers,” Schaefer says.

Make Them Cry, Make them Buy

“There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy.’ It’s about action in the world,” warned Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope.

Campaigns that promise to improve the world but fail to take real action damage the entire industry, Jope warned.

Purpose-driven campaigns can improve trust in brands when well-done, but the industry is now at a crossroads, he said.

Woke Washing Examples

A few examples of woke washing:

Clothing company Lacoste announced it would change its trademark crocodile logo for 10 limited-edition polo shirts featuring different endangered species. Critics said the company sells “gloves made from deer leather” and “cow leather handbags.”

Burger King launched its #FeelYourWay campaign to mark Mental Awareness month by selling products such as a “Blue Meal” or a “Pissed Meal.” Social media users pointed out that Burger King employees probably cannot afford mental health care on their low wages – and noted the correlation between financial insecurity and mental distress.

Pepsi created a television ad that featured Kendall Jenner distributing happiness and understanding at a protest by handing out Pepsi.

Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ad featuring Serena Williams supported female athletes. Critics called Nike hypocritical. The company does not offer paid maternity leave to female athletes it sponsors, and women and girls working for its suppliers receive low wages.

How to Avoid Woke Washing

These recommendations can help brands develop responsible, effective purpose-driven campaigns and avoid charges of woke washing

Examine your brand’s values. Your PR and marketing should reflect the DNA of your company. Define your purpose by understanding why do you do what you do. “Is this grounded in tradition alone, or does the company’s reason for being need to be updated with a modern lens?” Schaefer poses.

Link causes with business purposes.  It makes sense for Patagonia to fight for environmental protection and Airbnb to take a stand on public housing. “When these companies take a stand, it’s logical because the position aligns with their core mission and the values of their customers,” Shaefer says.

Study your audience. Although public relations and marketing departments may believe they understand their audiences, predicting how large numbers of people will react to sensitive issues is extremely difficult. Extensive research, including social media analytics, surveys and focus groups, can help predict consumers’ reactions.

Seek diverse input.  If your team is made up of predominantly white, middle-class men and women and you’re creating a campaign targeting a group that’s not white or middle-class, ask a broader group of people to review your proposals. “It’s much better to spend a few hours before you go live bouncing ideas off a test group than putting it out and receiving major back lash,” cautions Rebecca Lee, founder of PR firm Plain Jane.

Checking with leaders of associations involved with the cause can also help.

Emphasize actions. People can sense self-serving PR ploys. They want to see organizations take concrete actions that benefit more than themselves.

Pick your battles carefully. Not every issue deserves a company statement. It’s essential to carefully consider when to stake a position and when to remain silent.

“It’s critical for organizations to have a firm grasp on the issues that matter most to its stakeholders, and understand how those issues intersect with its own values and business,” advises Kristin Hollins, FleishmanHillard’s corporate reputation practice group lead for the Americas. “While it’s impossible to please everyone, it is possible to understand your audiences and their point of view.”

Bottom Line: Companies of all sorts are suddenly espousing their support for a broad range of social issues, but their support is often shallow. Such ill-conceived attempts at purpose-driven marketing elicit charges of woke washing and may ultimately hurt legitimate brand activism.