Staff Writer
Jun 1, 2022

The importance of being earnest: Navigating the dangers of woke-washing to make a meaningful impact on DEI

In the age of authenticity, brands are increasingly expected to take stances on DEI issues. But woke-washing — the act of co-opting causes for commercial gain without making real contributions — is worse than no stance at all; it is exploitative and actively damaging to important movements.

The importance of being earnest: Navigating the dangers of woke-washing to make a meaningful impact on DEI

This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with Essence.

While taking a stand is a good starting point, the road to real change must not end there. To discuss the ongoing and pervasive trend of brands jumping on the bandwagon on social issues to score points with customers — and how brands can ensure that they deliver truly transformative advertising and make a tangible difference in the world we live in — we caught up with four leaders from Essence in the region:

  • Alice Isola, head of social, APAC
  • Gabrielle Kong, vice president, strategy, China
  • Jamarr Mills, head of business planning, Australia
  • Oindrila Roy, head of strategy, India

What is your definition of woke-washing, specifically in relation to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?

Alice: Woke-washing is the act of joining a movement aimed at representing and claiming rights of any minority group for marketing purposes. We have seen multiple examples of woke-washing from brands in the past two years, whether it is posting a black square on their Instagram pages or covering their logos in rainbow colours during LGBTQIA awareness months. These can be shortcuts for brands to jump on the woke-wagon without having actual ethical plans around DEI in place, which deem the acts themselves meaningless. We have heard of ‘talking the talk,’ but this is more like ‘talking the talk with the wrong words, while learning to walk.’

Individuals can perpetuate woke-washing too, often pressured by online trends and the urge to be part of the conversation without taking the time to fully educate themselves on such complex topics.

Oindrila: For about a decade now, consumer reports have had the same insight: consumers are more likely to purchase from brands that are diverse, sustainable and ethical. This has triggered some companies to make superficial attempts at brand activism to be favoured by consumers. These attempts of faux activism for financial gain, without walking the talk, is woke-washing.

Gabrielle: Woke-washing is considered a marketing scheme to ‘make them cry, make them buy,’ without making real social impact and contribution towards DEI. There is no shortage of examples of profit-driven companies deploying good causes for advertising purposes. However, the core issue is the disconnect and inconsistency in public communication with the companies’ historical values and culture. Authenticity is key to avoiding woke-washing marketing.

Jamarr: Let’s skip an elaborate woke-washing definition and summarise it in two words: inauthentic and performative. More often, we see brands attempting to take a stance on a topic that is ultimately inauthentic to their brand or products and fail to take an active involvement in creating change for the issue it appears to be supporting.

How is this relevant in the APAC region, how can companies avoid disingenuous woke marketing in APAC, and what are some woke topics that are particularly relevant to APAC?

Alice: The multitude of ethnic backgrounds, religions, and countries makes APAC one of the most interesting and diverse regions in the world, but that comes with even more DEI consideration for brands. Because of such complexity, it is important for brands to ensure each community is authentically represented.

It is very easy to fall into clichés when portraying people from minorities without representation at the heart of the company, so when that might not be an option, an external consultant or focus group can help.

Oindrila: The need for DEI is felt everywhere and the urgency to address these issues is universal. However, brands must remember that manifestations of DEI differ from region to region and country to country. For companies to truly champion these spaces, instead of viewing the problems through the lens of other regions or countries, brands should analyse the situation and come up with relevant local solutions.

Consumers in APAC want to see more groups represented in marketing, but only one in five consumers feel represented in the ads they see. There is a strong appetite for more inclusive content but it seems like not enough inclusive content is being created.

Often, women’s stories are most underrepresented. This could have a significant effect on businesses, particularly when we see that across ads in Australia, India, Japan and New Zealand, women speak less than 40% of the time. Brands need to delve deeper into these insights and leverage them to connect more meaningfully with their consumers.

Gabrielle: A relevant topic would be around International Women’s Day (IWD), which has become the biggest celebration empowering women in recent years. I am honoured to have had the opportunity to contribute to the movement by helping to establish the Nike Women community in China a decade ago. More and more brands have since joined the celebration. Unfortunately, IWD has also turned into a marketing gimmick for online sales and offline marketing activities. Regardless, the good still outweighs the bad — social awareness is still being raised and female empowerment continues to be built, despite the increasing commercial hype being tagged to IWD.

Another relevant topic is the fashion industry. Calvin Klein’s campaigns featuring diverse individuals generally receive fairly positive feedback as they show consistency with the brand’s efforts in communicating messages of embracing diversity. On the other hand, Victoria’s Secret may be in a much trickier place with its long history of glamorous supermodel perfection.

In China, global brands also need a localised approach — one that resonates convincingly with the company.

Jamarr: Understand your audience and make sure you have the right people in the room. Do not be afraid to shake up who the final decision maker needs to be within your marketing teams. We talk a lot about people having seats at tables. The metaphor does not align with the reality of how marketing works. It is more like having a seat in the car. Ideally, we would all take turns driving, but the world is still driven by those coming from some form of social privilege. In this new world, marketers need to ensure they have the right navigators ensuring the drivers are going in the right direction.

In Australia, a relevant topic would be image equity. Recently, Google rolled out a campaign to launch Real Tone on Google Pixel 6 to help improve the representation of all skin tones in Australian media. Historically, camera technology has overlooked and excluded people with darker skin tones. With the help of the smartphone’s equitable camera technology, Google created a new stock photo library that showcases darker skin tones to help media channels better reflect the diversity of Australia, in line with the company’s commitment to DEI.

As industries and companies continue to make headway in DEI, how can companies embed authenticity and genuine purpose into their organisations and campaigns?

Alice: Brands have made significant improvements in DEI, but continuous effort and investment are required for them to keep improving against their goals. The first step is assessing where a company is at in terms of DEI and defining clear goals, alongside a plan to hold each team accountable. I think it is perfectly fine to look up to brands leading in the DEI space and adopt or adapt the same initiatives. Also, goals should be informed by feedback from employees belonging to diverse backgrounds and not just decided exclusively by senior leadership. While C-suite executives might be diverse in terms of race or gender, their thinking or socioeconomic background might be similar and hence not representative of the entire makeup of a company. The very meaning of inclusion is ensuring each and every individual is represented, hence seen and heard.

Secondly, training is critical to ensure that all employees have the tools to implement the change required. We all see the world through the eyes of our own experiences, so it is necessary to learn how others might experience a situation and recognise any unconscious bias we might have.

Lastly, companies can ask for DEI as an imperative, facilitating positive change beyond their own remit. Advertising agencies experience this change firsthand as brands increasingly include DEI requirements in their briefs. These can be through having diverse talent working collaboratively on a campaign or ensuring messaging and targeting address minorities.

Oindrila: To embed authenticity and genuine purpose, companies need to relentlessly work towards narrowing the gap between words and deeds. A great start would be to resist the temptation to create meaningless marketing campaigns. People do not buy brands; they buy stories. As marketers, while it is our job to connect with consumers through stories that accurately represent the world around us, it is also our responsibility to ensure that every part of the business is true to the inclusive values of the brand we weave stories around — from product development to executive representation.

DEI is not just fodder for contextual social media campaigns, a tick box to appease consumers, or just another training programme for corporate compliance. There needs to be a strong long-term commitment based on a deep understanding of local nuances and cultural contexts.

A great example is Salesforce in Australia and New Zealand. A study in Australia found that 30% of trans and gender-diverse respondents had suffered discrimination in the workplace, and a study in New Zealand revealed that trans and gender-diverse people suffer from high or very high psychological distress at a rate nine times higher than the general population. The company launched a new suite of gender-inclusive benefits for employees during Transgender Awareness Week, including financial and leave support for those on their gender affirmation journey.

Gabrielle: Consistency is crucial in building an authentic brand to its consumer and broader audience. For example, Chinese lingerie brand Neiwai shares human-centred stories that resonate with everyday consumers. Its brand essence, ideology, and spirit are all connected and aligned in authentic stories as part of its successful ‘no body is nobody’ campaign.

How should companies respond to accusations of woke-washing, both in immediate crisis response and long-term strategy recalibration?

Alice: If accused of woke-washing, companies should listen. Any feedback coming from members of a minority or diverse community is an opportunity to learn more about their experience and how best to engage and communicate with these communities in the future. Being able to recognise one’s limitations and being open to improvement will foster an environment where people feel supported and free to ask for the change that would make their experience more inclusive.

As a long-term strategy recalibration, I would look at professional support in terms of market research and other tools which can better inform how a company can participate in any social purpose discourse. For example, as marketers we use creative testing tools to determine whether users will resonate with our ads. Similarly, we can use the same technology to know if a specific community finds the ads inclusive.

Gabrielle: In China, a typical response pattern has been observed over recent years. When an ad is criticised, brands tend to spring into immediate action and remove all content related to it. Without clear communication, this can lead to greater negative social discussion.

Last year, Intel became mired in controversy after pulling an ad featuring popular stand-up comedian Yang Li. The laptop ad received backlash from male netizens, as Yang is known for her piercing jokes about men. At the same time, women hit back at the removal of the ad.

Oindrila: Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer found that 86% of people expect CEOs to publicly speak out about societal issues and 68% agree that CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems. Companies today are under pressure to take on transformative issues but they must adopt the strategy of ‘act first, talk later,’ and lead by example rather than just create noise around critical issues just to appease their employees and consumers.

Research indicates that consumers are more likely to continue supporting purposeful brands in the event they make a misstep, if they truly live by a clear and strong brand purpose. Consumers only want brands to admit their weaknesses, be transparent with their problems and take meaningful steps to hold themselves accountable to change.

Companies should make firm commitments by drawing up a long-term strategic roadmap of how they will affect change from within. Just as balance sheets clearly indicate a company’s financial standing, companies can also open themselves up to external audits, especially with respect to representation across levels where DEI is concerned.  

Should companies take a stand in woke matters in markets where these topics are heavily stigmatised or even criminalised? Take LGBTQIA rights for example. Homosexuality is legal in most of Indonesia, but persecution of LGTBQIA individuals remains beyond the conservative region of Aceh. Meanwhile, it is still illegal for men to engage in homosexual acts in Singapore, despite Singapore being regarded as a world-class city and even the birthplace of the Pink Dot festival.

Alice: This is a very sensitive topic as companies should prioritise their employees’ safety when operating in countries where sexual orientation or gender identity is still stigmatised. That being said, companies also have the power to influence change and easily provide inclusion to employees who might not be able to have that in other spheres of their lives. For example, many global companies in Singapore recognise the same marriage leave for same-sex marriage, which is a powerful stand for the LGBTQIA community.

I believe that brands that support woke matters in an ethical way can contribute to slowly erasing some of the stigmas still present around minorities. Any occasion for a diverse community to see true representation promotes inclusion and might push others to question stigmas.

Oindrila: If a brand takes a stance only to appease its audiences, it can be harmful to the brand. However, if a brand truly supports a cause, it should stand by it, no matter what. While consumers today are critical of woke-washing, brands that are consciously transformative can make a real difference. For example, Deliveroo rebranded to Deloveroo and customers had the option to update their app to reflect a rainbow palette in celebration of Pride Month in Singapore despite drawing mixed reactions, to stand for the business’ core values of diversity and inclusion.

Jamarr: It all comes back to doing what is authentic for where your brand sits within the cultural context. However, I think we are also observing that brands that do not take a stance will pay for it in their long-term growth. While current consumers may be against an issue, the job of marketing is to secure existing customers, and more importantly, future growth opportunities and leads. If your brand’s future lies in Generation Z or Generation Alpha, then they will expect more from your brand than providing a satisfactory product or service. They want your brand to have morals. Brands have been anthropomorphised and are expected to have values that exemplify where these generations see the future heading.

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