Monday Morning Moan – the problem with woke-wash marketing

In 2017 Katie Martell was watching TV. She kept seeing commercials espousing feminist ideals and wondered when selling products like deodorant and cars using feminism became the new normal.

These days you can’t go a single commercial break or scan a social network without seeing some kind of advertising that involves a social movement – Black Lives Matter (BLM), LGBTQ, feminism, and so on. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Martell shared her perspective with me, and it’s enough to make companies and marketing teams step back and rethink what they are doing.

Femvertising – yes, it’s a thing

There’s an award program centered around what’s called “femvertising”, Martell told me. For the last five years, SHE Media has held the Femvertising Awards, honoring brands that “are challenging gender norms by building stereotype-busting, pro-female messages and images into ads that target women and girls.” Not a bad thing – if the companies doing this marketing live up to the values their ads promote.

Some do.

Many, well…

Martell starting digging into what was happening behind the scenes of these companies, and what she’s found is concerning. One example, KPMG did a great ad with Phil Mickelson and a female golfer centered around breaking the glass ceiling. They did it as part of their sponsorship of the women’s golf tournament. But a little research, and you’d find that the company was part of a 5 million dollar class-action lawsuit for underpaying women in its organization.

It was a similar story for State Street Global Advisor, said Martell. State Street is behind the Fearless Girl statue, but in 2017 it agreed to pay a $5 million lawsuit for underpaying female and minorities employees.

Martell told me that she is not an investigative journalist; she is “an unapologetic marketing truth teller”, according to her own descriptor. A marketer with access to Google. There are many examples like the two listed above, and they aren’t hard to find. It didn’t take me long to find the details on either of the lawsuits Martell told me about.

Plugging into social movements for attention

Today’s trend is to find a way to “plugin” to whatever social movement is “capturing the attention of the public consciousness.” Martell was so fascinated by what brands were doing that she decided to create a documentary about it. Her goal is to make sure that consumers are more literate about what they are seeing. She believes that empowered buyers are empowered citizens.

Understanding the motivation behind brand advertising and social media can help people make better decisions, she said. “We can vote with our wallet or our talents.”

Woke-wash marketing – the term Martell applies to this type of marketing – is increasing. As consumers, we need to be aware that it’s happening. As marketers, we need to be smart about how and why we do it.

The big question becomes, how do you know if the brand lives the ideals it’s espousing? Who has time to research every brand to make sure it really does stand behind its marketing messages? For example, how many brands put up the black screen with white lettering in support of BLM? So many. But how many of those brands stand up for diversity and equity in their companies?

Martell said that if a brand, like a shoe company, wants to play in the area of human rights and social justice, they have a responsibility to live those values:

I know morality doesn’t pay the bills. But companies know there is a financial incentive to being a part of this consideration set. This idea that I want to buy based on values. I want to buy from companies that align with my values.

But do consumers really buy based on their values? Martell is a wealth of stats and research on woke-wash marketing. She shared some with me:

  • According to Accenture research, 2/3 of global consumers purchase from companies that reflect their values/beliefs.
  • In 2018, Edelman found 64% of consumers expect brands to act, are belief-driven buyers.

But for every study that said this is what consumers want and do, she found no studies correlated to actual buying behavior. NIKE might be a good example here. Its 2017 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick alienated many people, but it also brought in thousands of new customers and generated $6 billion in sales.

One night, my fifteen-year-old daughter was talking to me – oblivious that I had spoken to Martell – about a body-shaming ad that Avon received backlash for a couple of years ago. The advertisement for a cellulite product, which said, “‘Every body is beautiful’ alongside ‘Dimples are cute on your face (not your thighs),’ was a clear demonstration of femvertising gone way wrong. My daughter saw a reference to this old ad in 2021 – some things do not go away. I’m not sure if Avon lost any sales due to this ad, but I expect it had some effect.

Fabletics is another recent example. Founded by actress Kate Hudson, who is well-known for being a strong, successful woman, the company has run into controversy due to alleged sexual abuse and harassment of women in its factory in Africa. Will consumers stop buying activewear from the company?

Creating an illusion of progress

You may have your own opinions of woke wash marketing and whether you think it’s good or not. But Martell has some genuine concerns about it:

Companies are getting away with a lot of performative lip service, a lot of virtue signaling. And we’re celebrating it as consumers because we are just so grateful that we have some public support.

The problem is it’s a dangerous road to go down and can damage not only the brand but, more importantly, the movement if they aren’t truly supporting the it. Or as Martell puts it:

It creates an illusion of progress. But the number one danger I feel of this idea that words that align with actions is that we are creating a sense of complacency. That the fight is over, that the work is done. That we can all just go celebrate because now Mastercard has a Pride parade float. Are you kidding?

Brands have an opportunity to show up as real allies for these social movements. And there is an expectation that they do. For example, in two different years of Edelman studies, consumers said that CEOs should lead change and speak out on societal challenges.

A great example –  Netflix refused to film a TV show in North Carolina because of that state’s anti-LGBTQ law. In the enterprise tech space, firms like Salesforce have been hugely vocal on similar issues.

To be a true ally means the brand has to reflect the values of the social movements internally. They need policies in place that protect these communities, Martell told me. And if they do, she’s all for them promoting it. But first, they have to do it:

First, make sure that your house is in order before you start to raise the flag. And whatever minority of the month you’re claiming to be an ally to, understand what the movement is calling for. Ask yourself, are we showing up for that community in our organization? In the communities in which we do business and then in our marketing? If the answer is yes, go for it. This is our new normal.

Brands have a responsibility today to step up. But their marketing needs to reflect what is happening internally. It can’t be all face-value. Consumers are getting smarter, and the risk of getting caught is not worth taking. It’s also not worth the potential damage you could cause to the movement you claim to stand behind. As Martell pointed out, there are people at the center of these debates.

My take

We don’t live in a perfect world. In that perfect world, I would agree with Martell that there would be no woke marketing. Brands would support these communities and put their money behind that support, not into marketing that promotes their support.

I’m suspicious of much of this type of marketing. I question some of the Pride-colored logos in June, the white-on-black social posts, the calendar-driven marketing? Is there substance behind it? And as a marketer who doesn’t want to get it wrong, what is the better approach?

Martell’s argument is that it’s important to understand why a movement exists, what is the history behind it? And why do you (the brand) have something you want to say about it? Understanding your motives makes the path forward clear. Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for how to do this.

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