Marketing Thought

Woke-Washing: A Big Deal?

I find the discussions of the role of social purpose in marketing fascinating. Unlike a lot of marketing discussions this can make it into popular debates. Owen Jones, a UK Guardian (left leaning) opinion journalist gave his view on brands and the culture wars. The open question — Woke-Washing: A Big Deal?

LGBT Sandwich

Jones starts off by noting that when Marks and Spencer (the major UK store) launched a LGBT sandwich TV broadcasters asked him to critique it. They were clearly upset that he didn’t think this was trivializing gay rights. The broadcasters hoped to stimulate a debate. Is this an example of a company using its platform to advance the rights of a traditionally oppressed group or a cynical marketing ploy?

Corporate Involvement Can Blur Traditional Political Lines

Dividing lines are often not very clear when firms associate themselves with movements. Some on the left think it is great when firms help. They are keen for Nike to support the advance of social justice. Some on the right, who might traditionally be more business friendly, burn their sneakers. Others on the left argue that the firm does other things wrong so they shouldn’t be trusted on whatever issues they are seeking to progress. Others on the right think if it makes money what is wrong with it?

It certainly is fair for some people who disagree with a message not to buy from the firm. Similarly as no firm has a perfect record it is easy to criticize even the most woke firm.

I am not doubting that [Ernst & Young, an accountancy firm that flaunts its LGBTQ credentials] is a good place for LGBTQ employees to work: but here is a firm that facilitates tax avoidance on a grand scale at a time when LGBTQ services are being cut on the basis there isn’t enough public money to fund them.

Jones, 2019

The challenge with this view is that this pretty much knocks out any accounting firm from helping progress. I’m personally not convinced this is helpful in this case. It might be better to applaud Ernst & Young when it does good things — in the hope more firms become better places for LGBTQ employees — while accepting that the firm will do other things we might not like as much. I don’t see creating LGBTQ friendly places as ‘woke-washing’ but as progress on an important, but single, front. It shouldn’t stop us also worrying about other bad labor practices, environmental disregard or anything else. Still we can be happy about the wins.

Woke-Washing: A Big Deal?

Overall Jones somewhat tries to take a middle ground: “…while I am still not going to get angry about a [LGBT] sandwich, I am not going to start pretending it will change the world, either.” (Jones, 2019). I would say something similar but in a slightly more positive tone. Your sandwich alone isn’t going to change the world but if there is a choice then why not buy a sandwich that shares your values? If the business people selling it make more money then good for them.

(Technically one might argue that corporate political positions create differentiation and so dampen competition. But that is a story for another day. This is a more positive post.)

Political Differentiation Could Dampen Competition

For more on public policy see here.

Read: Owen Jones (2019) Woke-washing: how brands are cashing in on the culture wars, The Guardian, May 23, 2019

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