Free the birds

Branding, Communications

Woke-washing Is Just Another Way For Brands To Tap The Millennial Market

Sara Jones, partner at Free The Birds, writes for The Huffington Post

It was 19th Century circus owner Phineas T Barnum, the inspiration for the juggernaut film ‘The Greatest Showman’, who is said to have coined the phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Tell that to Iceland, the Spice Girls, Russell Brand and Gillette right now, who are all still reeling from a torrent of headlines and accusations of ‘woke washing.’

Iceland found itself in the midst of a Twitter storm, after it emerged last week that despite pledging to remove palm oil from all their products by the end of last year, they had removed their own-label branding from 17 of its products containing palm oil instead, rather than the ingredient itself, and are still selling 28 own-brand products with palm oil or fat, as well as more than 600 from other brands.

Cue lots of mealy-mouthed excuses from Iceland about it being too difficult to meet its own self-imposed deadline, blaming “technical difficulties”, saying any products still containing palm oil were frozen old stock and insisting it didn’t want to mislead customers – despite still selling own-brand fresh hot cross buns right now which contain, you guessed it, palm oil.

Earlier in the month, the Spice Girls were left red-faced when it emerged that their Comic Relief t-shirts made for this year’s Red Nose Day to campaign for gender equality, were made by women enduring “inhuman conditions” in a Bangladesh factory that paid them just 35p per hour, far less than a living wage, and who were forced to work 16 hours a day and were verbally abused if they didn’t hit targets.

Sporting the message “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl” on the front and “gender justice” on the back, money raised from sales of the £19.40 sweatshop t-shirts were to be donated to Comic Relief’s fund to help “champion equality for women”. Girl power indeed…

 

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Spice Girls

Meanwhile, Russell Brand, who’s long defined himself as a ‘woke’, politically-engaged modern man, also this week received a massive backlash over his views about parenting, where he said he didn’t change nappies and hadn’t looked after his two-year-old and six-month-old daughters for 24 hours on his own, in a Times interview to flog his new book ‘Mentors: How To Help And Be Helped’.

The problem is the public will always be cynical when brands and celebrities get involved with social issues when the backstory just doesn’t check out.

Just look at the disastrous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad from a couple of years back which tried to piggyback on #BlackLivesMatter, or Dove making ‘woman shaped’ bottles and making an ad which showed a black woman peeling off her top to turn into a white woman, both flew in the face of the brand’s ‘real beauty’ message supposedly celebrating body diversity.

So many brands are keen to adopt a ‘woke’ identity and make proclamations on politically charged topics like gender equality, to appeal to millennials who are now the most powerful consumers on the planet, and are set this year to overtake baby boomers to become the largest generation in history.

For example, 81% of millennials expect their favourite companies and brands to make public declarations about social and environmental change.

But faking ‘wokeness’ just won’t cut it, especially when it’s a brand trying to turn a profit off the back of suddenly developing a social conscience. Quite rightly, this commodification of political and social messages and kind of ‘right-on’ capitalism has us cynics balking.

 

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Russel Brand

Gillette says they are happy with sales since the release of their controversial #MeToo ad and insist that their commercial was “a success” after receiving “unprecedented levels” of media coverage, despite many slating it as anti-men.

And despite the brickbats levelled at Gillette’s parent company Procter and Gamble over the ad, it has to be remembered that it did a brilliant job with the ‘Like A Girl’ campaign for their feminine hygiene range Always.

But the conversation certainly shines a spotlight on how far some brands and celebrities still have to go to be authentic activists. You really have to practice what you preach because the public aren’t stupid, and social media means you will be instantly called out on any lazy, hypocritical inauthenticity.

If you are going to make purpose-driven statements you’d better make sure it reflects in your brand’s actual behaviour.

In the current circus that is modern life, even the greatest showman himself Phineas T Barnum might concede that when it comes to publicity, woke washing just won’t, well, wash.

Sara Jones, partner + client services director, Published in The Huffington Post, January 2019