Wokenomics, wokevertizing, woke capitalism, woke as a business strategy. Call it what you want, but the definition is the same: companies bandwagoning social justice causes in the name of branding and selling products.
The most recent case of this happening is Gillette’s #MeToo commercial released on January 13. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out, as it’s received more than 28M views. And if you liked it, you’re in the minority, with dislikes outnumbering likes by half a million. Gillette isn’t the first brand to latch itself to a timely social justice movement, nor is it the first to receive criticism. Why are some of these forays seen as more successful than others?
What’s the big deal?
The men’s razor brand, playing on its longtime “The Best a Man Can Get,” changed its slogan to a new line: “The Best a Man Can Be.” It draws upon a timely social justice movement, attempting to address toxic masculinity by showing how it negatively affects boys and men. We are shown clearly where Gillette stands – and how they claim their brand can help improve the situation.
Despite praise for including men in a women-focused conversation, the commercial still draws criticism. Gillette’s lack of involvement, comment or stance on the #MeToo movement prior to this commercial gives users a healthy dose of skepticism about their motives. While the commercial is spearheading a new philanthropic effort by Gillette, it’s not a cause they’ve aligned themselves with before. Consumers are smart, and they know the difference between something that’s genuine and something that’s, well, meant to sell razors.
While the commercial was clearly designed to make a splash, had the brand waded into these discussions or initiatives prior to launching a major commercial (around Super Bowl time, no less), audiences would have been primed to assume the brand had credibility in this space. Skepticism aside, while Gillette may have had the right intentions, their “all-in” approach produced a bandwagon effect.
How can brands sincerely enter into the social justice conversation?
It all starts with knowing your audience.
We know that millennial audiences – the assumed target market of these commercials, and the consumer set with the most purchasing power – are more social justice oriented than previous generations, and that they expect their brands to be, too. But they’re also smart, savvy, and know insincerity when they see it. If you want to make a social justice ad, it needs to align with your brand’s actions. You have to be able to backup your claim. If not, skip out – your PR team will thank you later.
Taking a look back, there are certain commercials that have been less successful, while others hit the nail on the head.
Gillette vs. Pepsi vs. Nike
Probably the most infamous attempt at a “woke” commercial is the Pepsi commercial of 2017. In it, supermodel and reality-gramfluencer Kendall Jenner joins a peaceful protest of justice-minded millennials. Police officers block the march, and so Jenner walks out and hands one a Pepsi, which he gratefully accepts and sips as the crowd cheers.
Long story short: the Internet was outraged. Pepsi ended up pulling the ad all together, and they and Jenner publicly apologized, stating that they had “missed the mark.” But what does it mean to miss the mark?
Critics complained that the ad failed to accurately represent police brutality that the Black Lives Matters protests – which they were clearly drawing inspiration from – faced. Having a white woman as the focal point was called out as cultural appropriation of a minority movement. And, one of the most glaring criticisms, was the lack of relevance it had to the Pepsi brand. For a commercial meant to speak to a major social justice conversation, it was as though this piece of advertising was created without any input from that movement.
Ultimately, consumers saw through it, and you know the rest.
On the flip side of the Pepsi ad, Nike’s commercial from last fall is an example of a brand taking the social justice risk, and earning respect from consumers. In the ad, Colin Kaepernick (of Black Lives Matter and NFL fame) narrates as athletes are shown to “dream crazy.” Kaepernick tells the audience to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” This can be assumed to reference his fallout with many Americans, the President, and (allegedly) the NFL over him kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality against African Americans.
The commercial was a hit, with more than 80 million views across Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, and likes outnumbering dislikes on the latter 154K to 20K. What was different?
For one, consumers noted that the message aligned with what the brand had been putting out for years. Nike has long spoken out against racism, and their CEO has vocalized support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, they partnered with Kaepernick before he created controversy on the field, and kept him after it, which was seen as a true commitment to the player and his voice.
The Nike ad, unlike Pepsi, was seen as being true to the brand values they had defined long before it was topical, and it rang true with their audience. And, in a world where the bottom line is the final say on success, Nike’s sales shot up 31% compared to the previous year in the days following the debut of the ad. It is worth noting that Gillette’s parent company Procter & Gamble has a history amongst its other brands of championing social justice movements through commercials. It can be assumed, however, that the average audience member would not be aware of Gillette’s parentage, nor its connections to other brands such as Always and Pantene, and so it cannot benefit from their brand values.
If you take one thing away
Ultimately, brands commenting on of-the-moment social justice issues are risky moves, and more often than not, they’re seen as tone deaf or exploitative. If your brand is considering it, make sure to think of your audience first, and user test it before launching it to a national audience. Relevance and backing up words with actions have never been more important.
Also, bake what you promote into your DNA. It’s no longer enough to say you stand for something — your brand, its employees, your products and your advertising have to show it, day after day after day.