'Woke' Should Never Be A Branding Strategy

Targeting millennials with forced CSR will only turn customers off


It is an experience familiar to anyone who has switched on a television or been subjected to video advertising online in the last few years. In fact, it's so common an experience that it has ceased to feel odd quickly despite being a relatively new phenomenon. The experience is thus: a slick, well-produced short film will tackle a big issue, reveal some kind of tragic story, tell a heartwarming tale, or otherwise tug at the heartstrings, all before fading to black and displaying an (almost always) unrelated brand name.

A recent example came from UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's. The three-minute Christmas advert in 2016 depicted the truce that took place during the first World War, during which British and German forces played soccer and exchanged gifts. Whether you find the advert heartwarming or cynical, Sainsbury's use of a powerful moment in history to promote its brand has at best a tangential link to what it is about as a company. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when brands got 'deep' but the trend is exhausting, with just about every emotional soft spot attacked regularly by advertisers looking to forge a connection over the frankly inadequate length of a handful of minutes. It seems that brands have fully embraced their roles as storytellers, but have elected not to consider their relevance to the stories they're telling.

The next stage in this development of marketing is brands looking to muscle in on issues young people care about, from sustainability to political protest - to use a modern word, they want to appear 'woke'. Brands are commonly aligning themselves with movements or ideas that they have very little connection with on a material level, following trends that matter to young people targeting engagement by association. When you consider the fact that 66% of millennials say they'll pay more for products from sustainable brands, the obsession is unsurprising.

Faking 'wokeness' in business, though, is a lot like those repulsive guides purporting to have the 'key' to success when dating. These are invariably instruction manuals almost exclusively aimed at men, with 'tips and tricks' that by definition ignore the nuance and empathy necessary for any human interactions, not least romantic ones. No matter how polished your performance or how convincing your spiel, people will quickly see through the facade. The deep cynicism inherent in the whole notion of dating guides reduces potential partners down to psychological puzzles that can be solved.

This same cynicism all too often infects the world of marketing. We've come an unrecognizably long way from the days of advertisements simply describing products or extolling the virtues of a brand's services. In the over-saturated digital ad spaces of 2017, brands are forced to chase an emotional connection with their audiences. Often, they do so by clearly aiming for the emotional or political nerves of their intended customers, who are increasingly liberal city-dwellers.

It's only when a brand gets things painfully wrong that the cynicism behind a lot of contemporary advertising becomes obvious. One of the most infamous examples of a company widely missing the mark is Pepsi's co-option of the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soda. The ad, which saw Kendall Jenner hand a police officer a can of Pepsi after being invited into a laughably nondescript protest, drew vociferous criticism immediately for its stark misrepresentation of many protestors' experiences dealing with law enforcement at demonstrations. Pepsi has no connection with the Black Lives Matter movement, and its intended audience utterly panned the ad for its apparent ignorance of the complexity of the issue it co-opted.

Pepsi withdrew the ad and Jenner herself apologized for the misstep, as both attempted to move on as unscathed as possible from the calamitous wreckage of the campaign. But even the company's apology was strangely off-putting. 'Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,' Pepsi said in a statement. 'We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.' Pepsi's raison d'être as a company patently isn't to spread a global messages of unity and peace - it is to sell soda, in as high a quantity and to as many people as possible.

Rob Baiocco, a creative executive at the BAM Connection, put it well: 'Companies are avidly and aggressively trying to get involved in a socially responsible space, and they are doing it horribly – they are grabbing at straws. They are entering a complex conversation they have no right to be in, yet they are forcing their way in. These creatives are trying to make their toilet paper save the world. Sometimes, a Pringle is just a Pringle.'

It's this that any socially aware customer will find so distasteful when branded videos try to explore deeply complex issues in five minutes or under. It's not that a brand cannot or should not do its part to alleviate society's burning issues, it's that it has to fully commit to it. Unity and peace are, of course, positive messages to spread, but not when they're being blatantly hijacked by a multinational soft drinks company to sell more to a demographic it deems more receptive to them. If Pepsi wanted to associate itself with healing complex divisions in US society, it should have *actually* done its part toward healing them, then promoted that legitimate work. This kind of campaign may have resonated, not an eerily watered-down reference to protest.

It's against this backdrop of faux-deep commercials and cynical virtue signaling that ads like soft drink company Oasis' 'Refreshing Stuff' campaign are just that. In bold and bright cartoon, the ad ran in the summer of 2015 with the tag-line: 'It's summer. You're thirsty. We've got sales targets.' The matter of fact approach to advertising was chosen with the express purpose of connecting with a younger audience, one that is perhaps less receptive to and naturally more suspicious of traditional advertising. This is, of course, a cynical construction in of itself but, in a world of emotional ads that have little relevance to the actual products they're made to sell, the honesty was enough to cut through the noise and make a lasting impression.

Brands appealing to the millennial notion of being 'woke' are somewhat destined to miss the mark. Younger people simply don't see large, multinational corporations as allies in their causes. It's not that they consider them enemies, it's just that companies like Pepsi have no relevance to the causes that millennials will gather in their thousands to demonstrate. Rather than jumping on these trends with promotional video content, brands should work to make themselves the kind of company millennials are more comfortable buying from. They should promote equality in the workplace, use sustainable materials where possible, and actually support progressive groups, rather than coopting or distorting their messages. In a world of brands vying for attention both online and on television, it's those that examine their own working practices that will capture the imagination, not those that scream how 'woke' they are from the rooftops.

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