Woke-washing: Can Corporations do better?


Prabhakar Mundkur, Mentor Capitalist & Thought Leader, shares his two cents on Woke Washing by brands as the term becomes all the new rage, making some pertinent points.

“Purpose is one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve seen for this industry in my 35 years of marketing,” Alan Jope, Chairman of Unilever is known to have told the crowd at Cannes Lions. And if USP, Positioning, and Mission statements were the brand opportunities of yesteryears today’s brand opportunities seem to be built around a brand purpose.

He said that Unilever’s largest and best-growing brands were brands with purpose and warned the industry against brands that don’t walk the talk i.e. brands that claimed to have a purpose but didn’t actually deliver it

But then again, what is the purpose of brand purpose?

We are told that there is this greater objective that brands must have beyond making money. Brand purpose is supposed to outline why you exist.  And even if you don’t have a purpose it is better to find one because consumers are looking to buy brands with purpose.  It is interesting where all this could have really started.

Also read: Why vernacular is winning?

Quite possible that the trigger for the brand purpose might well be our growing pre-occupation with the millennials. Of course, most people forget that the oldest millennial is now 38 years old and is no longer a synonym for kids these days nor is it supposed to suggest the rebel that we expected. He might well just be a well-settled middle-class dad with a family.  So perhaps it is time to recalibrate what brands have to mean.

But woke-washing seems to be a cynical ploy by marketers to make their brands flash their support for social causes. Examples being given are Kendall Jenner stopping a protest modeled after Black Lives Matter with a Pepsi can, which could have even challenged the likes of Martin Luther King or when Marks and Spencer launched an LGBT sandwich recently which was nothing more than a classic BLT with guacamole thrown in.

The real issue is that brands might be aligning themselves with a purpose but in fact continuing to cause harm to the planet or to communities around the globe.  Instead of improving their business and production practices they indulge in woke-washing perhaps with some sense of guilt. And this is where the hubris and the hypocrisy really lies.

Soft drink companies around the globe are contributing to the plastic menace because the earth cannot digest plastic, oil companies are affecting climate change, mining companies are involved in human and environmental rights violations, food companies are constantly poisoning us with their pesticide use, agricultural companies are devasting forests, chemical companies are contaminating soil and water, and several other industries are just polluting the earth.

So the real question is whether corporations can focus on doing less harm to people and the planet rather than all this charlatanry and deceitfulness about the grand purpose of their brands to help humanity and the earth we live in. Let’s face it. Brands were made to meet the universal needs of their consumers and not to support a social cause. Kid’s brands are really not interested in child obesity or to raise inspired creative children, clothing brands are not interested in preserving the environment, soap brands don’t really care about women’s self-esteem, and a coffee shop is really not interested in fighting hunger.

In the book ‘Start with why’ by Simon Sinek he says ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.’  It is difficult to understand why people around the world suddenly changed their minds in just this decade on their real reason for buying brands. I buy a watch because it tells me the time or simply because I want to show off my Rolex or Omega, I buy soap because it cleans and makes me smell good, and I eat cornflakes because it gives me my dietary requirement of vitamins and minerals for the day. I drink coffee to get an upper and because I love the flavor of 80% Arabica with 20% Robusta and not because my coffee brand is fighting hunger in some remote part of the world.

Karl Marx uses the term Mehrwert to describe the yield, profit or return on production capital invested. But it is not necessary to have digested Das Capital to know that a brand’s real purpose is to make a profit.

This article is authored by Prabhakar Mundkur, Mentor Capitalist & Thought Leader / LinkedIn #1 Top Voice 2016/YourStory’s 100 Emerging Voices 2018.


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