Woke-ism is a powerful social trend that touches all our lives. It is colloquial and I don’t know if the Oxford dictionary has anointed the term as yet, but simply put, being woke is being able to show you are awake and espouse the cause of social and racial justice. It is a powerful youth value and connector. Which means brands can’t be far behind. If you want this new demanding segment to buy your products and services, you need to showcase your woke credentials.
Writer Marc Bains rather scathingly calls it “a place where capitalism meets activism” in an article in Quartz magazine. It sounds easy – align yourself to a trending cause and get the cash registers ringing. Not so easy, actually. The new woke consumer is likely to call you out for any perceived hypocrisy.
A decade ago, Femvertising was the flavour of advertising. Femvertising co-opted the discourse and terms of feminism in creating brand communication. It worked in starting several conversations and trending hashtags like #ThisGirlCan, #BloodNormal, #SharetheLoad, but consumers now are even more demanding of overall transparency and credentials.
Fearless Girl is an example which broke many advertising stereotypes because the communication began with the installation of a statue at Wall Street – a 10-year-old girl eyeballing Wall Street to celebrate the anniversary of a gender diversity index fund that invested in companies that had an inclusive gender policy. It was phenomenally successful and was covered in every possible media. Then came a $ 5 million lawsuit against the company from its own employees for not paying equal salaries to female and minority employees. Turns out they weren’t investing as much into companies with a positive gender diversity rating as claimed either. That was 2017, but in 2021, you can’t fight for inclusion and gender justice and not face a backlash if you fall short. Think about it.
IT MUST FIT THE BRAND
Nike aligned itself to Black Lives Matter by featuring player Nicolas Kaepernick in its ads. This ad was polarizing as Kaepernick’s kneeling before the American flag at an NFL game was considered unpatriotic by some and there were calls for a Nike boycott and burning Nike shoes. Nike refused to pull its ad. At the end of the year, Nike had registered almost a 50% increase in sales and an even more positive brand rating. Other brands like Pepsi faced fire for trying to espouse BLM. In Nike’s case, they were not riding a trend. Nike had always signed and supported Black athletes and BLM, so it was seen as an extension of their brand work.
On the other hand, consumers have not hesitated to call Nike out in the #MeToo movement for an internal management issue - sexual harassment of women at the workplace by senior executives. It did not sit well with Nike’s consumers because it ran contrary to Nike’s ‘empowering women’ ads. If you want to create woke ads, you have to be ready for questions regarding your advertising as well as your corporate affairs because your values as a brand are at stake.
Closer home, Tanishq tries too hard. I sense Tanishq has written ‘woke’ weddings into its brand DNA but while this is a laudable subject, it never rings true. Unlike Nike, which held the line, Tanishq buckles down a little too swiftly. If Tanishq did a campaign for the rights of goldsmiths or for preserving heritage techniques of gold crafting or encouraging more women to learn the craft, then it would be a perfect fit.
A PERFECT EXAMPLE
I saw an ad by Bhima Jewellers recently. I didn’t know the brand, but I will now watch out for their ads. This is a 96-year-old Kerala-based jewellery brand, and by no means a small brand. The ad showed someone transitioning from male to female and ended with a wedding. A simple commercial full of little moments of joy, no lecture, no hushed tones, but it takes an unspoken issue head on. It does it effortlessly. What makes it even more sincere is that transwoman Meera Singhania – and not a model - has been cast to play the lead role. To my mind, this is what woke advertising should be.
(The author has been Regional Creative Director, Ogilvy and has devoted many column inches and years to advertising and brands.)