1. Consumerism is capitalism’s first cousin.
Classic consumerism is about consumers enhancing their lifestyles in line with evolving societal norms and standards, and the classic role of marketing has been to increase the ‘consumption’ of brands in order to enhance the profits of the corporations that own them. It is usually a systematic journey of driving excess with the reward of prestige, fame and bonuses for the marketers aboard the gravy train. The challenge is that societal norms shift with time, and we are now in the middle of another such shift, whereby Gen Z and Millennials are challenging the relentless trend towards increasing consumption, without transparency and without sharing the benefits of this consumption with the broader communities they operate within – and which brings us to the subject of ‘woke’ consumerism.
Woke consumerism is when consumers demand that their brands ‘wake up and become more socially, ethically and environmentally accountable.’ This change has arrived, and it’s here to stay, as according to a global Millennial survey conducted by Deloitte, 63% of Millennials and 70% of Gen Z are willing to pay more for products and services that are committed to social and environmental responsibility, rather than to driving excessive consumption. In this situation, the knee-jerk reaction from marketers is to bring clever shifts in their advertising to play into their consumers’ wokeness, but without really changing anything deep down. Today, this superficial ‘washing’ can often lead to severe consumer backlashes.
According to research conducted by BCG/MIT, 90% of executives say that sustainability is important. However, the problem here is that only 60% of organisations have a sustainability strategy – and it is often not implemented.
Claiming to be woke without walking the walk is a reputational risk for corporates and brands. Real change involves time and money and decreased profitability in the short term.
There are several defined forms of washing which responsible brands should be wary of. They include:
Greenwashing, which is a deceptive tactic to make brands appear more sustainable, eco-conscious and climate-aware than they actually are. According to a report by TerraChoice, over 98% of the ‘green’ products on the market are guilty of greenwashing. Examples are oil companies that over-emphasise their green initiatives while remaining the biggest contributors in terms of greenhouse emissions.
Bluewashing is greenwashing’s cousin and is the act of using social justice themes in marketing campaigns to create a positive image without taking meaningful action. Although some companies may genuinely support social justice causes, others ‘blue wash’ to make their brand look good without doing anything concrete. Rather than resorting to superficiality, brands should work on creating real change by working with people who have expertise on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Purplewashing is when brands pick up gender themes, challenging gender stereotypes as a marketing tactic without walking the walk. There are a growing number of brands climbing on this bandwagon and supporting heightened awareness of feminist values. But here again, they support without bringing real changes in the way they operate. Organisations such as UN Women have excellent guidelines for corporates and brands wishing to navigate their way around becoming more woke.
Claiming to be woke without walking the walk is a reputational risk for corporates and brands. Real change involves time and money and decreased profitability in the short term. This said, authentic wokeism can become a unique differentiator for brands in a hyper-competitive environment where functional differentiation is marginal at best.
There is a serious business case to be put up to Gen Z and Millennial consumers, who are willing to pay a premium for brands that are genuinely woke. No doubt this is a challenging path to navigate considering the current decreased purchasing power, declining economic indicators and little to no market growth. Nevertheless, great marketers have always been able to look past the immediate situation and stay ahead of the curve to achieve sustained growth. Realistically speaking, there are some harmful consumer categories out there and the harm done by their consumption almost always outweighs the net good of their CSR activities. Yet, consumption of these products will continue as they are integral to today’s modern lifestyle and the fact is that they do have the choice to explore alternative paths that are greener in the long term. What they certainly should not do is try to ‘wash’ things over through excessive self-projection as they risk being called out by consumer activist groups. Brands have a responsibility to ‘awaken’ and lead their organisations into becoming more woke and it is not only marketers, but many other stakeholders who need to engage in bringing about genuine and often costly process changes. The whole organisation needs to walk the talk, inside out in order to make it real.
Authentic storytelling is better than super glossy and perfectly polished ad campaigns. Marketers need to keep their messaging real and avoid the pitfalls of over-promotion. They need to remember that they are talking to an audience that craves authenticity and connection with their evolving values more than ever before.
Afzal Hussain is MD, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.