Like many concepts, ‘woke’ was most recently incarnated as conscious politicism, forged by African American communities dating back to the ’60s. In 1962, the New York Times printed a glossary in which woke featured, of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’. This was published alongside black novelist William Melvin Kelley and his explanation of woke as being ‘well informed and up to date’. However, since its African American-owned roots, associated with an awake-ness to racism and social injustice, woke has been watered down.
From a contemporary standpoint, woke has been re-appropriated, evolved in meaning and utilised to facilitate brand and consumer connection. Whilst being woke strives to be all-inclusive, wokeness often is an external facade to stay relevant; environmentally, politically, socially correct bandwagons often correlate to profitable, publicly well-received business models. The issue with external-only wokeness is a lack of genuineness. This can be a dangerous dance of tokenism, profitability based on social inclusion with no genuine investment into social issues and pornification of the experience of marginalised demographics within society. The catch twenty-two is visibility, dialogue and awareness do occur when businesses adopt this model. But is being woke enough? Or should it be our bare minimum?
The hard truth is being woke became cool, and we loved it. Whilst the beginnings of being woke may have been naive and well-intended, it quickly became a merit of being a rounded human, an on-trend human, an awake human. And if you didn’t align, welcome the enemy of woke which is to be cancelled. We loved it so much that brands adopted it, marketed it, commodified it and profited from it.
Like a profitable shapeshifter that feeds on pop culture and relevance, capitalism has proven its adaptability. Grassroots activism in the ’80s brought the environment to the public agenda, and capitalism responded. In a Burnay-esque fashion, oil company Chevron manipulated consumers through questionable marketing that campaigned its green credentials – perhaps the first example of “greenwashing”, the environmental extension of “woke-washing”. This capitalist enterprise, as responsible for pollution and environmental foul play as the next, used the relevance of environmental issues to drive profits. Chevron’s enthusiastic portrayal of saving the planet one animal at a time was a PR stunt to prime the continued support from environmental allies. And it worked – polling in California in the aftermath of the campaign confirmed that people regarded Chevron as the oil company they trusted most to protect the environment.
Moving forward, brand activism has evolved two-fold. In 2019, Nike produced an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who kneeled during the American national anthem in protest of police brutality and murder of African Americans. The advert tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”, saw Nike’s profits increase to $6billion after it campaigned. Nike became synonymous with Kaepernick, in turn becoming synonymous with Kaepernick’s personal brave activism. Regardless of well-placed intentions, journalist Hemal Jhaveri said it best:
"Supporting Nike isn’t the same as supporting Black Lives Matter, but Nike certainly would be OK if you thought so."
More recently, Nike’s pro-women advertisement featuring Serena Williams which campaigned for equal pay was swiftly undermined by Nike-sponsored runner Alysia Montano when she came forward to announce that Nike has refused to provide her with paid maternity leave.
What’s more, if you have a finger on the pulse of pop culture you will remember the fallout after that Pepsi commercial featuring ‘oblivious’ supermodel Kenny J. As if a bubbly beverage handed by a white woman to a white police officer might actually change police brutality against targeted demographics. Kenny then went on to create ‘818 Tequila’ featuring an advertisement in which the supermodel wears ‘migrant chic’ and further toes the line in the appropriation of Mexican culture and tradition by profiting off a beverage that’s makings are exclusive to Mexico. During politically tense times in India, Cadbury launched a multi-coloured chocolate bar featuring dark, blended, milk, and white chocolate that was meant to “bring India together” and followed with an advertisement advocating:
"Everyone living together, but not always with love. Cadbury Dairy Milk, which is loved by everyone, wants to send a powerful message of unity."
A non-binary acquaintance of mine who is involved in the fashion world spoke of a certain company attempts of LGBTQIA+ wokeness as “Tokenism”.
"They want me as their creative, to create their wokeness, to appear woke. But if I get to bring queer creatives together in paid work that’s all that matters."
So, how do we get it right? When colluding business and activism, there must be a deep essence of genuineness that isn’t timed perfectly with on-trend relevance. It must be in the blueprint of the business, even if it is a reimagined blueprint. I’m all for redemption. In a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Macromarketing, author Amanda Spry speaks on the importance of transformative branding. Transformative branding promotes the dynamic role that macro-marketing can play in building a vision for transformation, creating hybridity between the market and complex issues. The key concepts within transformative branding are rooted in a beyond profits approach. Firstly, it requires leadership, in which businesses re-imagine branding to stay aligned with long-term horizons (ie. environmental impact, inclusion, diversity) and changing ideologies. Secondly, it involves a collaborative approach, starting internally then externally. To talk the talk, you must walk the walk. ‘Collaborative Coupling’ allows for businesses to embody change around social, political and environmental issues internally and then implement this vision across the inter-dimensional aspects of the business. Through mobilizing all stakeholders – customers, employees, investors, suppliers, governments, communities and competitors – businesses then embody and add weight to the goal of their transformations, increasing the legitimacy of their awareness. This is true alignment.
Everyone’s favourite Robyn Fenty (aka Rihanna), is the peak embodiment of transformative branding, always ‘doing the most’. Her top-down approach to inclusion, deeply rooted across her empire, is the business model behind her beauty empire. It isn’t an aloof attempt at staying relevant – the intersectional approach came from day one. Rhianna’s ethos is authentically awake, and her vision of inclusion did subsequently lead to a multi-million dollar brand without the facade of forced public relations.
During my readings on this topic, it became apparent that what we want and perhaps what we need is integration. Wokeness has been lost in translation. We are begging for integration of authenticity and transparency tied closely with genuine care for our planet, other humans and issues within the intersections of all. It’s become embarrassingly obvious when brands miss the mark, when their ethics come out in the wash, tarnishing everything with the sour taste of falsity. Whilst I do enjoy chocolate, drink tequila and wear brands that are involved in social issues, it has become jarringly unconscious to blindly accept preaching businesses, which show little or no evidence of genuine internal-to-external integration. It must be a top-down approach: inclusion, diversity and compassion should never be about box-ticking, quota filling or profit mongering. There is always more to learn – as a consumer and as a CEO.
Ignorance is no longer bliss and woke-washing was never cool. Brands, businesses and consumers must lament intention, putting their money, resources and societal influence where the mouths of those they use to stay relevant want it most.