“Woke” Brands Need to Wake Up

Many brands are trying to connect with millennials by tapping into conversations about social issues, but are coming off as superficial and doing nothing of substance to support the causes

By now, I am sure you have already seen the above ad from Pepsi, featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner. This ad has already received a lot of backlash and criticism on social media and beyond. People are angry that Pepsi played into the topic of protest to market the brand, without really contributing anything meaningful. It seems almost impossible to deny that what Pepsi has done is co-opt actual themes and images from real-life protests and tried to turn them into a way to sell soda. People have even pointed out that some of the imagery in the ad very explicitly reflects images from real-life protests, where the people involved are not high-paid supermodels but rather regular people involved in movements with real, dangerous, and sometimes deadly implications. This picture of Ieshia Evans, a peaceful protestor being arrested at a protest following the death of Alton Sterling, placed next to the image of Kendall Jenner extending the olive-branch Pepsi can, paints it clearly enough:

The confusing part is that this ad doesn’t really say anything- much like the meaningless signs featured in the ad, saying things like “Join the Conversation”- about what, Pepsi? The ad features happy-go-lucky protestors marching for some ambiguous cause, while also seemingly being pro-police, but ultimately fails to deliver any real message other than “Protesting is fun!” and “Police officers love Pepsi!” It is very confusing.

It is already evident that Pepsi has severely missed the mark with this advertisement. The immediate reaction was disbelief, to the point where it almost seemed like a joke to most people. “Who approved this shit?” people asked, decrying the reality that this concept had to pass through many people and go from conception to full execution, and not one person thought, hey, maybe it isn’t a great idea to take advantage of actual, pressing social issues while contributing nothing real to the issue or the conversation. But millennials love companies that are “woke”, right?

The answer to that question is still unclear, because as of yet, little brands have succeeded in actually delivering marketing that fits into what many young people would define as “woke”- being aware of social justice issues and the implications that they have on various communities of people, and doing whatever possible to contribute to positive social change.

What has been happening lately can be described as a shift in the way that brands are trying to connect with, and market to, young people. Many companies have gone from trying to sell a product based on its attributes or the potential benefits it can offer consumers, to trying to sell a product based on a brand that is marketed as visionary and as having a larger purpose in the world.

At least Marketers have picked up that young people- millennials- care a lot about social causes. What they have failed to understand, however, is that that does not mean that a brand appearing to care about social causes will be much more successful in marketing to millennials, because the other reality is that millennials are quite skeptical- only about 1% of millennials claim that a compelling ad influences them (from HuffPost). Traditional advertising is quickly losing traction with the younger generation, who is turning to social media for just about everything. This makes it even trickier for brands to connect with young people through advertisements.

But taking a guess at what young people seem to care about, and using that as fodder to create a “hip”, “woke” advertisement is not the answer. Brands need to confront the reality that they may be very out of touch with the consumers that they are trying to reach. A recent study by IBM and Econsultancy surveyed both brands and consumers, and found that 81% of marketers think that they have a holistic understanding of their consumers, while 78% of consumers report feeling that they are not understood by brands. (Source: IBM Get the data)

So what is the solution? Does this mean that brands should steer clear of addressing social issues altogether? I won’t pretend to know all the answers, but my opinion is this: it is not wrong for brands to care about pressing social issues. What is wrong, however, is using important social issues that they think the public cares about to market a product or service that has nothing to do with said issues, while doing nothing to play any real role in having a positive social impact or enacting positive social change with regards to those issues.

Brands with extensive marketing budgets clearly have huge audiences, just as they have huge wallets. If a brand is going to call attention to a specific social issue in marketing, they should also be doing something behind the scenes to play a role in positive social change relating to that issue. Whether that is donating profits to local organizations and programs that are mission-driven, or some other creative method of social impact, the brand should do something beyond just trying to fit into a conversation that they should not really be a part of if they aren’t doing anything of substance.

Doing this, of course, is a lot easier said than done. Even brands that are trying to take action in tangible ways to contribute to positive social change can come across as superficial if they place too much of an emphasis on social issues in their marketing efforts. People will ultimately be turned off if they feel a brand is only talking about a certain issue because they think it will sell, regardless of whether or not the brand is actually doing anything to have an impact.

With all this in mind, brands clearly need to rethink the role that social issues can and should play in marketing, and in the actions of the company as a whole. In an ideal world, companies would find a way to give back by taking action to promote and contribute to positive social change, without seeking anything in return. Until then, it is my hope that companies and marketers can take a step back and question their motives, their potential for impact, and whether or not they can and should play a role in talking about social issues.