How to create woke advertising that resonates locally

When done right, woke advertising campaigns can help brands create deeper, long-lasting connections with audiences around the world. However, woke campaigns can cause a lot of backlash in local markets. In 2019, Coca-Cola caused political and social upheaval in Hungary, when their #loveislove campaign, featuring same-sex couples,  sparked a heated debate between rightwing and liberal parties. After calls to boycott the brand, Coca-Cola made the decision to replace their OOH ads with different creative, showcasing Coke bottles with the Pride label instead. This episode caused us to ponder…how can brands promote progressive ideas, while taking into account local reality? And are global campaigns legitimate platforms for making political or social statements?

In this guide we take a look at woke advertising campaigns in more detail. We explore how being woke can benefit brands, but also the risks associated with this growing trend. Perhaps more importantly, we try to establish whether woke advertising is actually effective in promoting change globally.

What does it mean to be woke?

To put it simply, ‘woke’ is a term employed to describe someone who is aware of social and political issues. When applied to advertising and marketing content, it describes strategies used by brands to bring certain social or political matters, such as discrimination or injustice, to the fore.

What’s in it for brands?

With the proliferation of channels and content, brands need to find new ways to grab their audience’s attention. Woke content is an opportunity for brands to connect with their audience on a more personal level, by raising issues that their audience take to heart. Woke advertising has been a growing trend as brands are seeing the value in producing more authentic content, as opposed to taking a hard sell approach. And woke campaigns can prove very successful, especially to connect with the more liberally minded millennial generation.

Take the Always #LikeAGirl campaign, which debuted during the 2014 Superbowl, and became a global phenomenon, mainly through YouTube. The campaign was extremely moving as it shed light on the way young women tend to perceive themselves negatively, as a result of social conditioning. The campaign proved a massive hit and was one of the first in a series of ads with a feminist stance. Positive sentiment reached 96% in just 3 months, with mentions of general praise and love for the message and the brand across social. #LikeAGirl was watched more than 90 million times and ranked as the 2nd most viral video globally (source: Campaign).

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Calculated backlash

Another example of successful woke advertising, but this time a more controversial one, is Nike’s 2018 Just Do It campaign. Nike chose Colin Kaepernick – a football player who refused to chant the US national anthem at the Superbowl, in protest for the Black Lives Matter movement – as the face of their 30th Anniversary Just Do It campaign. As anticipated, the advert caused spectacular backlash amongst conservative viewers. But Nike knew what they were doing. Older conservatives don’t constitute their target audience; Nike could take the risk to alienate them. The strategy paid off; Nike’s stock value hit an all-time high in September 2018, despite the backlash.

So, does this mean, as it’s often said, that “all publicity is good publicity”? Well, not exactly. There’s a high risk associated with woke advertising, of which marketers should be aware. The key, when handling delicate social or political topics, is to be legitimate in doing so. Nike have been advocates for equal racial representation for years – so the Kaepernick campaign, though risky, made sense.

Lack of legitimacy

Other brands have been less fortunate than Always or Nike in their woke attempts. Take Pepsi’s 2017 Kendal Jenner ad. Pepsi had the best intentions when putting out its spot featuring the young influencer leaving a modelling shoot to join a mob of protestors in the street. Jenner is shown attempting to pacify the situation by handing a can of Pepsi to the police (see image below). The advert was widely criticised for trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement and trying to sell cans of Pepsi on the back of a serious cause. Needless to say, using Kendal Jenner as the face of the campaign only made matters worse since her activism is not quite at the same level as Kaepernicks’. The choice of the brand ambassador for a woke campaign can be the determining factor in its success, so brands should take consideration when planning their woke collaborations.

A couple of years later, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, razor brand Gillette set out to denounce toxic masculinity with their campaign The Best Men Can Be. Following in the footsteps of other Procter & Gamble brands like Always, Gillette decided to give its slogan, ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, a feminist spin. Though the advert came from a good place, it was perceived as insincere, and was met with instant backlash. So, you might ask, what was the problem? What did Always do right that Gillette didn’t?

After all, both ads came from the same truth: that boys and girls are not treated the same way. Through social conditioning, girls often perceive themselves as the weaker gender, while boys feel pressured into behaving violently. The difference between both ads may lie in their creative treatment. Always presented the facts in a documentary style creative, letting the footage of young girls denigrating themselves speak for itself. The tone in the Gillette ad was more moralising, with the use of a voice over, narrating over scenes of male violence and sexual harassment.

Time is of the essence when it comes to woke advertising. Brands need to respond to an issue at the right time. The Always campaign was released before the #MeToo movement and appeared quite novel. By the time Gillette’s campaign came out, the #MeToo movement had been all over the news and changed the way people could tackle topics around sexual harassment and toxic masculinity. Some male consumers felt attacked by the #MeToo movement, and so the Gillette advert was perceived as another unwelcome statement. Moreover, many male consumers felt the ad wasn’t an accurate portrayal of most men, painting all men with the same misogynistic brush. The image below, for example, captures the moment where a line of men nod in approval at the statement ‘boys will be boys’.

To add to this, Gillette got attacked by viewers for taking a feminist stance, despite the fact that their parent company, Procter & Gamble, contribute to gender inequality by putting a higher price on female razors and body care products. This leads us to perhaps the most crucial point when it comes to woke advertising. Brands can’t go on a moral rant if their own actions aren’t without reproach. In these times of instant news and social media, a brand’s actions have never been more transparent. If you’re going to claim you’re woke, you’ve got to be woke through and through.

Woke on a global scale

When planning a global campaign, it is important to consider that markets have very different attitudes towards social and political matters such as gender, sexuality, diversity or sustainability.

Culture, religion, politics…all of these factors influence how people think and what is perceived as acceptable in local markets. Some markets have very strict taboos dictated by religion or superstition. Other markets are under strict political rule. Access to education and openness to the rest of the world will also impact people’s attitudes towards progress. Of course, social progress is happening across different areas of the globe, but progress is very different from one country to another. While in the UK issues such as transphobia, racial discrimination, or sexual harassment are more and more scrutinised, in Saudi Arabia women were only recently given the right to drive.

Moreover, even in markets that are considered progressive, the rise of neo-nationalism means that societies are becoming more and more divided. Nationalist leaders are clinging onto an idealised representation of the past, spreading fear of change and intolerance. This can be seen in negative reactions to advertising campaigns. Take the recent Viva La Vulva campaign for feminine care brand Bodyform. The campaign, launched in 2018, celebrated the female body by playfully representing the vulva through various objects – with a mission to educate and break down the taboos around female sexual anatomy (see example below). The ad was met with great reactions from the creative community, but some markets did not react to it positively.

Surprisingly, there were hostile reactions in France, not particularly known to be a puritan nation. Some French viewers deemed the ad revolting, rather than empowering. The backlash triggered a deluge of complaints to the country’s electronic media regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA).

While there was an obvious backlash, the campaign still got people talking across different media platforms. Viva La Vulva even made headlines. So, sometimes it’s worth taking a risk. But, it’s all about assessing the situation within the market in order to predict and measure the potential backlash. If certain subgroups are going to react negatively, but the market as a whole is likely to celebrate the campaign or be positively challenged by it, then it’s worth pushing out into the region.

If a market’s current social, political or cultural situation is incredibly heated on a certain topic, brands should be prepared for negative reaction and decide whether they’re strong enough to face the potential controversy. For example, Hungary as a nation is divided on topics like sexuality. Research shows that many Hungarians hold progressive values, with more and more supporting LGBTQI rights. However, the ruling conservative party, Fidesz, and many of its supporters are openly against same-sex marriage. In fact, Boldog István, a Fidesz MP, called for the boycott of Coca-Cola until the brand removed its OOH ads featuring images of same-sex couples. This explains why Coca-Cola had to change the campaign visuals in this region.

Are woke campaigns effective in promoting social change?

Let’s steer back to the Always #LikeAGirl campaign. In a study conducted in December 2014, almost 70% of women and 60% of men claimed that “the video changed my perception of the phrase ‘like a girl’”.

Today, feminist messaging has become so common in advertising that it’s almost cliché. Brands have been using feminism to sell shampoo (Pantene), moisturisers (Dove) and even feminist energy bills (EDF). And though the feminist elements of these ads can feel a bit forced, there’s no doubt that these ads play a part in making equal representation more widespread. They might have even played a role in the recent legislation passed in the UK banning stereotypical gender representation from any form of advertising.

Woke through and through

While campaigns clearly make a difference, woke marketing is about more than making a song and dance through boundary pushing campaigns. To make real social change, marketers should weave wokeness into the very fabric of their brands, from ethos to product to advertising. For example, H&M were criticised in 2019 when Norway’s consumer watchdog claimed that the fashion brand hadn’t provided enough substantial evidence regarding the sustainability of its Conscious range on their website, and were therefore greenwashing. In our age of wokeness, greenwashing has become all too common among brands trying to get ahead.

However Patagonia has taken environmental consciousness to its core, with a mission statement dedicated to “building the best product” without causing “unnecessary harm” to the environment. They also pledge to “implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. Patagonia has always stayed true to its word, since 1985 the company has donated €89 million to organisations dedicated to saving the planet and actively supports environmental causes (see image below). Through a woke, eco-conscious ethos, Patagonia has made a positive impact on the battle against environmental damage.

Other brands are also making real change by building wokeness into every aspect of their company. The razor brand Billie, for example, are feminists down to their DNA. They donate 1% of all revenue to women’s causes across the globe, they cut the Pink Tax (the tax on feminine care products) off their pricing, and they celebrate real women’s bodies across all their marketing comms.

ASOS are another brand who are building wokeness into the shopping experience. They showcase their range of clothing and accessories through relatable and diverse models. Their decision to stop airbrushing models’ stretch marks was met with applause by many. Shopping online is a very personal experience, so changing the way products are showcased on the retail site is a powerful move. Representing a realistic female body to consumers as they shop infiltrates their everyday life, helping them find products through models they can relate to and to discover their own body positivity.

Beyond woke campaigns

From a global perspective, creating a woke campaign is never a bad idea. If executed well, these campaigns can use their reach to encourage positive social change. However, brands need to think about their target markets carefully, assessing whether a campaign can make a positive impact in the region. When it comes to woke marketing, for a brand to be seen as truly woke, a bold campaign is not enough. Brands must walk-the-talk, building wokeness into the fibre of their companies, in order to be respected by consumers, and to be seen as global game-changers.

If you found this blog on woke marketing useful, you should check out our guide to marketing to global consumer tribes. Or, if you’d like to discuss taking your woke campaign global, feel free to get in touch!