Matthew Keegan
Jun 5, 2023

Wokeness woes: Will the anti-woke wave reach Asia?

Every now and then, the right-wing backlash against 'woke' marketing engulfs the West, Campaign explores if there's any legitimacy to the 'go woke, go broke' sentiment. And if brands in APAC need to prepare to face fury?

(Photo: Campaign Asia-Pacific)
(Photo: Campaign Asia-Pacific)

If you hadn't already heard, ‘Go woke, go broke’ has been having its moment in the spotlight. The favourite rallying cry of America's political right was recently levelled at best-selling US beer brand Bud Light after they attempted to broaden their customer base by partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, a move that ended up backfiring and thus generated a lot of headlines.

Conservatives in America were reportedly outraged and immediately called for a boycott of the beer. The brand experienced a drop in sales and even wound up alienating transgender customers because it didn't support Mulvaney after the boycott calls began.

Bud Light is just one brand in a long list to fall foul of America's conservatives who will trot out their favourite 'go woke, go broke' phrase whenever they see a brand make the slightest attempt to align itself with liberal or progressive values.

Mulvaney’s partnership with Bud Light continues to tank sales. According to Nielsen IQ, Bud Light's sales dropped 29.5% compared to the same period last year, while sales revenue is down by 25.7% on the same week in 2022.

In these divisive times, it's little surprise that a so-called 'anti-woke' wave—a backlash to perceived political correctness and progressive values peddled by the left—has been gathering ground. It's clearly had an impact on advertising in the West, but will the anti-woke wave impact us in Asia?

"Not very likely," says Måns Tesch, chief strategy officer, Grey Group, Asia Pacific. "While many cultures across the region are more socially conservative than the West, which would lead you to believe that the region is ripe for an anti-woke movement, what’s largely missing is a wide-reaching far-right news media (like Fox News) searching for and fuelling the flames of perceived threats against conservative values regarding race, religion, sexuality and gender."

Besides, Tesch adds, APAC is an incredibly diverse region.

"What is true for China could be far from it in India, but on the whole, being 'woke' usually takes on a slightly different meaning in APAC," says Tesch. "It’s less about topics that have triggered fiery reactions in the US like celebrating gender transitions (Budweiser), and more about 'safer' issues like sustainability, female inclusion and poverty reduction."

What would cause APAC consumers to boycott a brand?

Data provided by audience research company GWI, finds that harmful behaviour directed towards specific communities (i.e. an ethnic minority, a religious group, etc.) is the most cited reason why APAC consumers might boycott a brand (57%), followed by unethical manufacturing practices (54%), violating regulations (51%), behaviour that is not environmentally friendly (50%) and transphobic behaviour (50%). 

"For APAC consumers, harmful or unethical behaviour are key reasons for potential boycotts, demonstrating an opposition to ‘anti-woke,’" says Laura Connell, senior trends manager at GWI. 

But Asia is not completely immune to its own 'woke' vs. 'anti-woke' divide. Culturally, Asia has become more progressive over the years. In fact, young people across the region are driving progress, pushing for change on all fronts, from political change (like the Milk Tea Alliance) to equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community (such as Pink Dot).

"The biggest resistance they are often up against is the institution," says Zoe Chen, strategy director at Virtue APAC. "In Asia, the 'anti-woke waves' are led by governments and religious groups."

For example, religious groups in Indonesia and Malaysia have encouraged a Starbucks boycott over the brand's support for LGBTQ+ rights, and most recently, Malaysian authorities seized 164 rainbow-coloured watches from Swatch’s Pride collection. 

WATCH: Starbucks' pro-LGBTQ+ community stand came under intense backlash after a 2017 call for boycott by Perkasa, an ethnic Muslim group in Malaysia. Not giving in perception fears, Starbucks recently affirned its stance and support for the LGBTQ+ community with a new ad in India featuring a trans model.

"Brands, in their attempt to connect with young people and stay in step with culture, want to be more 'woke' but have to stay on the good side of the country they operate in," says Chen. "Generally, 'approved' issues like sustainability, climate change and female empowerment are safe for brands to engage with through marketing campaigns; while issues like LGBTQ+, race, class or even mental health are decidedly more sensitive."

Is there any legitimacy to the 'go woke, go broke' argument?

Whether it's in the West or Asia, there's one thing we can learn from brands that choose to go ‘woke,’ and it's that the role of authenticity is so important. To that extent, there is legitimacy to the ‘go woke, go broke’ argument, but only if ‘woke’ efforts are short-term and ingenuine in nature. 

"When 'wokeness' is done performatively, such as being executed to purely garner marketing headlines or as a one-off fame campaign, everyone’s well-trained bullshit meter picks up on it and that’s when the public backlash starts," says Chen.

"However when a brand does it authentically, aligning with social and/or political causes in which they have some stake or interest alongside taking concrete actions to drive change, this actually builds trust and eventually sales in the long term."

In a climate of short-termism, marketers and agencies often struggle to resist trend-hopping/cause-jumping. These attempts at best risk being ignored by the audience and at worst, invite public backlash.

On the other hand, brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s that take a long-term approach, staying true to their identified causes and consistently demonstrating concrete action, win both consumer support and trust.

"Both brands (Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s) are market leaders in their respective industries, demonstrating that authentic brand activism can lead to commercial success beyond building brand equity," says Chen.

More culturally conservative than the West, do consumers in APAC even want brands to take a stand?

Screengrab of the Ipsos SEA study

A recent study across SEA by Ipsos found that 89% of respondents agreed: “It is important for brands to take a stand on environmental/social/political issues”.

"While consumers do want brands to take a stand, there is a disconnect between social topics that dominate global brand campaigns and the issues that matter to consumers in Asia," says Nitesh Lall, Asia-Pacific lead for brand activation tracking, Ipsos.

"With a stronger sense of community and conformity to societal norms, APAC consumers would like brands to focus more on environmental, health and educational issues with only a few expecting, or even accepting, brands to take a stand or talk about sensitive gender, LGBTQ or political issues."

But while aligning with consumer values is one way to build brand loyalty, even then consumer behaviour isn’t always straightforward. 

"With cost and convenience being key purchase drivers, values might sometimes take a backseat," says Connell of GWI. "It doesn’t mean they’re not important, but with rising costs weighing consumers down, there’s other factors they need to consider."

Are we likely to see more or less brand activism in the future?

87% of young people trust a brand that acts and doesn’t just talk, according to Culture of Trust, Vice Media Insights.

"Incorporating social advocacy into a brand’s DNA is here to stay and brands need to remember it’s not just about what you say or how you say it, but what you actually do that will create real difference and material impact," says Chen.

Modern brands and companies created by Gen Zs often come built-in with a strong stance on social issues, driving more organic engagement and advocacy amongst their audiences.

"We’re seeing Indonesian brands like Mad for Makeup and BLP Skin address unrealistic beauty standards while Instagram thrift shops set up by Gen Zs are a direct response to textile waste and sustainability," says Chen. “And brands from larger corporations are likely to mimic the approach of younger brands. For example, The Pizza Company in Thailand recently revealed its new non-binary mascot named Chickira that celebrates the inclusiveness and diversity of contemporary Thai youth culture.”

Nitesh Lall of Ipsos believes that while brands will increasingly face questions about woke washing, the trend of brands talking about social issues or advocating social change will likely continue.

"In a world of plenty and consumption driven by choice, rather than necessity, consumers are increasingly looking for deeper connection with brands they choose," says Lall. "At the same time, the woke backlash will also force brands to be authentic about their stand / advocacy of a social issue and we will see less buzz building woke campaigns by brands looking for a quick jump in awareness—the recent outrage against the Biore ad highlights how consumers are increasingly willing to call out such behaviour."

Matthew Crabbe, vice president of trends & lifestyles, Asia-Pacific, Mintel, agrees that consumers in APAC are very quick to name and shame brands that are not genuine in their actions.

"Climate change, biodiversity loss, social economic inequality, etc, are all issues in this region, that people care about," says Crabbe. "Because they care about these things, they do tend to gravitate to brands that take a standpoint for being advocates for social causes. But brands need to ensure they are doing this in a respectful way that is demonstrably making a positive impact on local communities, and not just doing so for profit or for reasons of greenwashing or virtue signalling."

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