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No brand is an island

26 November, 2020

First there was green washing. Then came purpose washing. And now we have woke washing. The term is being increasingly tossed at companies and brands which wade into the social and cultural issues of our time with a point of view.

As we have seen an increasing flurry of activity by brands – on Black Lives Matter, on guns, on voting and election propriety – so we have seen a corresponding flurry of eye rolling.

Tampax is perhaps the most prominent of recent examples. When it took to Twitter to declare “Not all people with periods are women. Let’s celebrate the diversity of all people who bleed!” the backlash was immediate. Alongside woke washing came allegations of virtue signalling (or virtue vomit as one critic put it) and countless other ways to suggest that the brand should have kept its mouth shut.

The problem with much of the rhetoric is that it suggests there is a genuine question around whether brands should venture into this space. Some commentators arrive at the conclusion that they should steer clear altogether, suggesting that a sensible course of action for a brand might be to avoid having a point of view. To stay silent on all matters that could be deemed political. To stick with bland corporate statements in the face of cultural fire and fury.

And to us, this idea that brands could pretend they aren’t part of the world, but exist in a vacuum, impervious to the waves of social change and action around them is almost more dangerous than anything else. It’s the antithesis of the powering belief that led us to found Good Business 25 years ago – the brands which drive progress succeed.

Of course chasing what’s deemed ‘woke’ in an effort to win easy favour is wrong – and will lead to superficial action that will, rightly, be slammed. Brands that jump on bandwagons are showing the world that they don’t have their own authentic grasp on where they stand on the issues of our time and the role they can play in relation to them.

And even brands that are purposeful, and which have a genuine perspective on an issue because it’s relevant to them and what they do, will fall down if they do the words but not the action, or just get the tone wrong – Tampax being a case in point.

But the answer is to do better, not to do nothing.

Today’s companies and brands are part of society and their future is determined by the forces shaping culture and the environment. Their supply chains reach to all corners of the world, they live on social media and are subject to its asymmetric power, and employees and consumers of all generations are increasingly activist themselves.

So of course they should respond, in real and substantive ways, to the issues that are relevant to them. Not for the sake of people pleasing, but in recognition of the fact that the world faces some very significant challenges, that the global response to these will shape their future, and because they have the power and influence to play a role in the creation of positive change.

So while of course we want brands to be held to scrutiny and inauthenticity to be called out, if the fear of being ‘woke washed’ acts as a brake on action, then it is definitely doing more harm than good.

Take Nike – a brand that’s close to our heart, as one of our early clients, and a spur to the very set up of Good Business. Back in the 1990s Nike was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons – a picture of a 12 year old Pakistani boy sewing a Nike soccer ball splashed on the cover of Life magazine said it all. All the potential that the brand had to create positive change was, rightly, in peril. Initially Nike got it all wrong on child labour, in the end it did act as the wakeup call it needed. It set Nike on the path to become a good business – one that actively works to address the social and environmental impacts of its business. And that in turn gave it a foundation of organisational confidence which has enabled it to develop a strong point of view around issues such as race and gender, which endure over time, and which are substantiated through both what the brand does and says. A far cry from woke washing, it made Nike an authentic force in the so-called culture wars. The brand is in and part of the world, in a live and evolving way that helps it shape the future it wants to see.

In the end brands are created by a group of people coming together to create something which they believe other people would come towards. The best brands are expression of those people. So of course they have points of view and care about particular things and seek to contribute to the world in a way that reflects their beliefs.

Brands that are detached from the world have lost this link to people. And the people behind them have lost their chance to create change. We want everyone to be involved in making the world the best place to live in it can be.

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