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Does Going ‘Woke’ Mean Going Broke? Inside the Polarized World of Socially Conscious Branding.

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The term “go woke, go broke”, has become a significant talking point in a society that appears to be more divided on political issues than ever. So why do brands continue to choose sides when it comes to politically-charged marketing?

It appears that the days of sitting on the fence are over for brands in a world that’s becoming increasingly unable to remain apolitical. But what challenges does this pose to UK small businesses?

According to a Harris Poll study, as much as 82% of consumers want brand values to align with their own, with three-quarters of shoppers claiming to have stopped using a brand because of a conflict in values.

So, this means that going woke can be a prosperous marketing decision, right? Not in the era of political tribalism.

To be “woke”, as termed by Merriam-Webster, is to be “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice),” which is a good thing, right?

Not according to Harris Poll’s study. In fact, 58% of shoppers believe corporations should be neutral on political issues, and 52% feel the same regarding social issues. Furthermore, just over two in five Americans believe that too many brands claim to celebrate Pride “without committing to real change.”

“Clearly, consumers have had it with corporate America trying to push values down on the people they supposedly are serving,” notes Will Hind, executive director of Consumers’ Research. “People now act fairly swiftly when they see companies going ‘woke’ in ways that are noxious.”

So why do many small businesses continue to launch marketing campaigns perceived as woke in the face of a clear degree of opposition? The answer is that their actions can help to create stronger bonds with their target audience.

The importance of sharing customer values.

The best politically charged marketing campaigns are ones where brands have thoroughly researched their customer profile and have gained a comprehensive understanding of their likes, dislikes, fears, and motivations.

In building an identity that perfectly suits your target audience, you can generate greater levels of consumer trust by nailing your colours to the mast and catering directly to them.

We can see instances of targeted marketing all around us as social media networks become increasingly polarised by political polemics.

The politicisation of transgender causes has seen UK brands such as Costa and Dr. Martens face social media pile-ons and a backlash from conservatives for using transgender people in their marketing. “I’m uncomfortable, instinctively, to see big businesses appropriating the views of their customers to make a political point,” claimed Conservative MP, John Glen.

But in the case of Costa Coffee, the coffee shop won fresh admirers by sticking to its principles after depicting a transgender customer on a mural.

“At Costa Coffee, we celebrate the diversity of our customers, team members and partners,” read a Costa statement on the issue. “We want everyone that interacts with us to experience the inclusive environment that we create to encourage people to feel welcome, free and unashamedly proud to be themselves. The mural, in its entirety, showcases and celebrates inclusivity.”

Costa’s irreverence in the face of backlash led #BoycottCostaCoffee to trend on social media, but the move drew a high volume of support for the brand in response, illustrating how taking a stand can amplify positive feelings towards a brand as well as negative ones.

Likewise, we’ve seen more conservative-focused enterprises emerge in a bid to appeal directly to more conservative markets. This has been illustrated by the launch of GB News, a UK news platform that’s deliberately sought to emulate the partizan approaches of Fox News in a bid to reach more right-wing viewers.

When businesses know who they’re targeting, and where their core customers are, politically-charged digital PR can be a great success. This, however, isn’t the case when companies intend to “go woke” when possessing a customer base that consists largely of conservatives.

Undoubtedly, the most famous recent example of a brand embracing a political cause that flies in the face of much of its customer base is Belgian firm AB InBev’s subsidiary Anheuser-Busch, which ran a U.S. advertising campaign for its Bud Light brand with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney in April 2023.

The campaign saw a furious backlash among America’s conservative Bud Light customers, who are generally opposed to more liberally recognised LGBTQ+ causes.

Just three days after Mulvaney’s Bud Light collaboration, U.S. musician Kid Rock took to social media to protest the marketing move by shooting at cans of Bud Light with a machine gun.

The fierce reaction to Bud Light’s perceived attempt at championing inclusivity in their marketing campaigns saw plenty of media attention for the brand.

Amazingly, Google Trends data shows that the campaign single-handedly generated extreme levels of queries for Bud Light in April 2023, and even today the brand is trending higher on average than at any other point in the past five years.

However, in AB InBev’s case, any publicity isn’t necessarily good publicity. While many supporters of the campaign celebrated the brand standing up for liberal values, boycotts of Bud Light have seen Anheuser-Busch’s U.S. sales fall 10% in the three months that followed the campaign’s launch, with the company’s core profit dropping 28% in the process.

Here, the sentiment behind “go woke, go broke” appears to hold some truth, but in reality, Bud Light’s failings came from the company’s failure to acknowledge the values of its target audience, which consists of men aged between 21 and 34 who like sports, humour, and socialising. While these traits don’t automatically mean they’re conservatives, a significant portion of their customers are likely to hold conservative values.

Do all businesses that go woke go broke?

Absolutely not. For brands of all sizes that understand their target audience and customer profile, going woke can help to strengthen bonds between the customers and the company.

Ice cream firm Ben & Jerry’s is a famous example of an activist brand that continually and actively embraced campaigns that support liberal values. While their outbursts have drawn plenty of opposition, they’ve managed to retain a loyal consumer base that continues to support the brand.

This was particularly visible in the United Kingdom in 2020 when Ben & Jerry’s took to Twitter to protest the government’s bid to change asylum laws to deter migrants from arriving in the UK. The firm suggested that the home secretary of the time, Priti Patel, showed more “humanity” and argued that “people cannot be illegal”.

In response, Patel claimed that Ben & Jerry’s was “overpriced junk food,” and conservative media outlets like the Daily Mail ran negative articles claiming that a boycott of the ‘woke’ ice cream giant was underway.

However, Ben & Jerry’s strong stance on liberal causes like supporting refugees, LBGTQ+ rights, racial equality, and climate change have long remained a core facet of the brand’s marketing strategy, and it has won admirers worldwide.

“Ben & Jerry’s has grown into the environment we find ourselves in today. The brand hasn’t changed, but the environment we’re all living in has come to meet it,” explained Jon Goldstone, global managing partner at The Brandgym.

“A lot of the stuff it did early on was incredibly prescient – almost like they had a magic ball they were looking into and could predict the future.”

Ben & Jerry’s is one of the founding members of ‘woke’ marketing campaigns, long before the term existed. Jeff Furman, who was chairman of the company from the 1980s to his retirement in 2018, called Ben & Jerry’s a “social justice organisation that sells ice cream to be able to fuel its advocacy work”.

With a revenue of $450 million in 2022, it’s certainly clear that going woke doesn’t carry a danger of losing money if you plan your campaigns right and understand your audience well enough.

Customer research is always imperative.

For small businesses adopting a politically charged marketing campaign, whether you’re ‘going woke’ or taking on a more conservative stance, it’s vital that you understand that your decision is certain to offend somebody. With this in mind, it’s vital that your cause is well-researched, factual, and certain to resonate positively with your target audience.

If three-quarters of customers stop using a brand because of a conflict in values, make sure you’re not that company. If 82% of consumers want brand values that align with their own, make sure you are that brand.

This means that you should never embrace a new campaign that isn’t researched with your core demographics central to your strategy. In understanding who you’re marketing to, what they expect, and whether they agree with your values, you can generate better brand awareness while standing up for causes that you believe in.

For small businesses, aligning yourself with the values of your target audience can be a major boost for brand advocacy. Socially conscious branding can cause media attention that boosts awareness on a significant scale. As long as you support the values of your customer profile, this will invariably help to leverage sales that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.

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