Brands & Politics

What happens when theoretical concepts like brand purpose collide with the realities of social unrest, polarization and conflict? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

These days it’s not uncommon to see headlines about brand activism.
  • Think Ben and Jerry’s pulling out of Israel and clashing with parent company Unilever.
  • Or Toyota pulling their Olympic ads over pandemic safety concerns.
  • Or Coca-Cola’s belated response to Georgia voting laws.
  • Or this Times profile of an up-and-coming coffee company positioning itself as Starbucks for the right.
It hasn’t always been this way. Traditionally, brands and politics were like church and state. Clear separation was the ideal and co-mingling was relatively rare. But as polarization and pressure for social change amp up, staying one the sidelines has become more difficult.

Research by Edelman found that nearly two thirds of consumers worldwide will buy or boycott brands based on their position on social issues. But other research shows that consumers are skeptical about brands trying to make the world a better place. Expectations are high. But if brands fall short, consumers will quickly move on. This particular mode of falling short is known woke-washing. It’s an easy trap to fall into, even if your intentions are good. 

So what’s a marketing leader to do? It’s starts with a decision about whether to weigh in on a given issue. Paul Argenti suggests using these three questions
  • Does the issue align with your company’s strategy? 
  • Can you meaningfully influence the issue? 
  • Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?
Argenti’s second question is particularly critical. We marketers are great at crafting messages, but messages alone won’t cut it: “It’s not about posting vague statements of solidarity. It’s about action and long-term strategies.” 

Ultimately, this is bigger than marketing. It’s about the whole organization living its values and investing in real change on the inside, not just external messages. So marketing leaders: don’t go it alone. Your role is to connect commitment on the inside to audiences on the outside. If that internal commitment isn’t there, you’re on your way to woke-washing.
Issue #123
Feb 15, 2022

Further Reading