Don’t sleep on woke marketing

It’s been nine months since account manager Jo Aitchison wrote her first blog on the importance of woke marketing – and the popularity of this phenomenon is only growing.

Get woke

Just weeks after Danny Baker was fired over his tweet that welcomed the new royal baby with an image of a chimp, being woke has proven to be more important than ever.

Being ‘woke’ is defined as: ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’.

It is dismissed by some as a ‘snowflake’ fad for the easily offended. But I argue that it is part of society’s consciousness and, if leveraged in the right way, is a powerful marketing tool.

Who cares?

In short: millennials and Generation Z.

These ‘snowflakes’ represent 31% and 32% of the global population respectively and hold the new purchasing power.

We are buying and consuming products faster than ever before so, if brands want to get us on-side, they better ‘get woke’.

As Cartwright’s millennial correspondent, I’ll be taking a look at two of the highest profile woke campaigns from the last nine months…

Gillette’s ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’

A lot has happened in the #MeToo movement in the past nine months and the boys are now joining the good fight.

Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign subverts its original tagline – ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ – suggesting that ‘masculinity’ is in a dangerous state of flux.

Typically negative tropes are portrayed in the advert, with phrases like: ‘boys will be boys’ analysed under the lens of bullying and harassment.

The reaction

Upon the advert’s release, Gillette faced considerable criticism.

Some considered it to be: ‘feminist propaganda’ (I ask, what is the issue with that?). Others claimed that it alienated its core audience.

Gary Coombe, Gillette’s president, responded: “By holding each other accountable, eliminating excuses for bad behaviour, and supporting a new generation working toward their personal ‘best,’ we can help create positive change that will matter for years to come.”

Coombe has also recently reiterated in The Telegraph that ‘the negative reaction by some men toward Gillette’s advertising will not persuade it to back down. “Absolutely not,” he declares.’

Of course enemy of the woke, Piers Morgan, expressed his disdain for the ad.

In response, Simon Kelner for the Independent suggested that: ‘you can be a bloke and be woke‘. I couldn’t agree more.

At the heart of every campaign is the desire to make money, of course.

Gillette will have predicted the controversy it would create.

So I wonder whether Gillette had its female audience in mind all along. Because let’s not forget it’s not just men who use razors.

Nike ‘Dream Crazy‘ 

‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’ was splashed across billboards all over the USA in September 2018, with American footballer Colin Kaepernick hired as the face of Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign.

Kaepernick also holds the title of ‘activist’ after infamously ‘taking the knee’ during the national anthem in protest against police brutality.

He is an advocate for #BlackLivesMatter and is seen as such a controversial figure that he was dropped from his football team (San Francisco 49ers) and hasn’t been touched by another team since.

Nike’s campaign video has gained almost 30 million views and celebrates the ‘crazy’ achievements of the world’s underdog athletes.

It suggests that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to sport. You can be big, small, black, white, rich, poor, male, female – neither – and still be the best in the world.

The reaction

Of course, there were those who disagreed with Kaepernick’s appointment, with videos of disgruntled consumers burning Nike items circulating the internet in protest.

But, even with this backlash – or perhaps, because of it – sales increased by 31%.

Nike ‘Dream Crazier’

Nike followed this with its ‘Dream Crazier’ video, which was launched in February 2019 – ahead of International Women’s Day.

The video is voiced by Serena Williams. Williams was weathering a media storm of her own at the time. Her ‘crazy’ behaviour at the US Open positioned her as Kaepernick’s controversial equal. Perfect for Nike.

Williams points out the negative language used when describing passionate, successful women in sport: ‘hysterical’, ‘unhinged’, ‘crazy’.

The campaign suggests that: ‘it’s only crazy until you do it’. Women have to push boundaries if they are to move forward.

Once again, an empowering message that also encourages the audience to look at the world differently.

Gillette vs Nike

Gillette and Nike’s campaigns are often reviewed in the same breath.

Woke campaigns tread a difficult line between promoting uplifting messaging while highlighting injustice. The general consensus is that Nike succeeds where Gillette has failed.

It’s not lecturing, it’s inspiring. It’s not pointing out flaws, it’s celebrating difference.

Woke washing?

I’ve seen the phrase ‘corporate social responsibility 2.0’ used to describe woke marketing – but don’t be fooled.

Brands want to appeal to the next generation of consumers who will buy their products and become loyal ambassadors, telling their friends and family all about their favourite products on social media.

Woke marketing is a great way to do this, generating a positive perception around a brand which appears to align itself with the fight to achieve racial, gender, class equality.

This can only be a good thing, right?

Cynics are not so easily pleased.

But my argument is this: would you rather a brand at least feign support for a movement that ultimately wants to make the world a better place? Or consume sexist, homophobic, non-inclusive campaigns that perpetuate the issues that created the need for ‘wokeness’ in the first place?

While capitalism is king, woke marketing will succeed in promoting both causes and brands. And in the words of my millennial counterparts: I’m not mad at it.

Full disclosure – I took ‘woke washing’ from Nosheen Iqbal’s Guardian headline: Woke washing? How brands like Gillette turn profits by creating a conscience. Genius.

By Jo Aitchison

Jo supports both consumer and B2B clients – working across food and drink, legal, and property sectors. She has experience writing for charity, retail, professional services and public sector clients – delivering creative campaigns and gaining regional and national coverage.