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How to Not Suck – How Brands Can “Stay Woke” in 2020 and Beyond

VisualFizz shares insight on "Staying Woke" and avoiding criticism and PR nightmares from branded media campaigns that weren't thought through.

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What does “Staying Woke” mean? In the least amount of words possible, it means Trying Your Hardest Not to Suck. Now… you can ask 100 different people that same question and receive 100 different answers, but as a business, the only answer that matters is how consumers see your brand. 

In this article, we’re going to explain what it means to be “Woke”, and show you how brands can “Stay Woke” moving in to 2020 and beyond.

What Does “Woke” Even Mean?

In case you haven’t noticed, Earth has kind of gone To Hell in a Hand-Basket over the last five years. As TV pundits argue over the issues of the day, it has become increasingly clear to marketers that younger generations of consumers actually care about the state of the planet and the wellness of their fellow human beings.

They care so much, in fact, that research shows 64% of Millennial and Gen-Z consumers choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. That means the majority of consumers are willing to avoid brands that they feel are contributing to the current crappy state of the planet and civilization as a whole.  

That’s what it means to be “Woke”:

“to keep informed of the shitstorm going on around you in times of turmoil and conflict, specifically on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered.”

Urban Dictionary

Before you @ me (and because I am [chuckles inwardly] “woke”) : Here is some background on the concept of the phrase. Educate yourself on why this phrase even exists and how it came about, and join me back here when you’re finished. How ‘woke’ went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang.

Branding Should Reflect the Modern + Diverse World We Live In

To some, staying woke may seem like just another slang internet phrase with little relevance to sound marketing advice, but we would argue that those people are not woke. It’s simple reasoning – if your brand does not reflect your audience, your audience is not going to buy it. 

Today’s consumer is modern, diverse and more socially aware than ever. Most importantly, they use their wallets to assert the change they wish to see in the world. Your audience is woke. That means your brand should be too. 

Consumers demand ethical products and services that aim to give back and better the planet. 

Staying Woke Can Backfire if You Send Mixed Messages

In the same way being Savage on Social Media can Benefit Your Branding Efforts or tank them, staying woke can benefit your brand or backfire if you send mixed messages. Unfortunately, many brands struggle to align their branding with customer values while staying “woke” to the social and political injustice in the world. 

In the worst case, your efforts to make your brand seem “woke” can come off as disingenuous, which can set your brand back even further. Younger consumers can spot fakes quickly and with ease, so disingenuous is not the way to go with this audience.

Example: Pepsi Ad Controversy

The most infamous example of this is, of course (and as I’m sure you’ve seen ad nauseam), the 2017 Pepsi ad featuring Kendal Jenner, whimsically dispelling racial tensions with a can of soda. 

Needless to say, the Twitter-universe erupted and consumers, rightfully called out the soda giant for making light of a political and human rights issue just to sell more pop. We got in a few licks too. ;p 

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Where did Pepsi go wrong? Pepsi’s heart may have been in the right place with this ad, but they went off the rails when they commercialized the issue of police violence and systemic racial discrimination against African Americans.

What Should Brands Learn From This?

Brands should make every effort to fully understand the issues that are important to their audience. Never (ever) make light of a political/human rights issue for the sake of a marketing campaign. Treat important issues with the gravity they deserve.

Example: Peloton Bike Ad Controversy

A perfect example of a “woke branding” backfiring is the (now also infamous) Peloton bike ad released during the 2019 holiday season. We are not sure how Peloton managed to make a 30-second ad in which a man gives a woman a stationary bike as a holiday gift into a sexist, “dystopian” horoscope… but some consumers felt the ad came off that way.

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Consumers of all ages genuinely disliked the ad, which become meme fodder almost instantly.

Peloton wasn’t necessarily trying to stay woke in this ad. Nonetheless, consumers did not appreciate a husband buying his already-fit wife an exercise bike, then watching her document her transition, seemingly desperate for his approval. 

staying woke tweet 1 digital marketing strategies visualfizz peloton

Since a Peloton Bike retails for $2,245 and membership for the company’s signature interactive classes costs nearly $40 a month, the commercial was seen as not only sexist but also classist.

staying woke tweet 1 digital marketing strategies visualfizz

Where did Peloton go wrong? According to social media, Peloton created a commercial that was very, very far from being woke. What’s worse, it’s clear from their statement and how long it took them to release it, that Peloton hadn’t even realized the messages their ad was sending. 

“Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey… While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”

At this point in the Peloton saga the brand had inadvertently created a very tonedeaf commercial, then, instead of apologizing for any offense the ad may have caused, they released a tonedeaf statement defending it. Whether you agree or disagree that the ad was rough, “Those who get it, get it” isn’t a great branding approach in any light.

What Should Brands Learn From This?

There are two things brands should take away from the Peloton ad and the ensuing social media frenzy. 

  1. It is essential for brands to conduct market research and run focus groups prior to releasing your ad. Any focus group selected from a diverse audience would have told the Peloton ad creators that their ad combined aspects of Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror.
  2. You don’t have to agree with criticism for it to affect your brand. A woke company shows they care about their customers/audience by quickly responding to criticism and apologizing for any offense they may have caused, inadvertently or otherwise.

Is the Peloton ad really that terrible? We’ve seen a lot of Brand Fails (2017, 2018, 2019) and can confidently say, “Eh”. 

The Peloton ad is far from the worst ad we have ever seen, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is how consumers see your brand. Consumers hated this ad and the effect sent Peloton’s stock plummeting a staggering 9% after release. That’s almost $1 billion in profit-loss, and a fate you want to avoid whether you care about staying woke or not. 

How Brands Can Stay Woke and Stay Smart

In 2019, the general public lost trust in government, media and brands. Tim Weber, editorial director at Edelman UK, put it this way,

“The public’s trust in brands is broken; nearly four fifths of consumers say they don’t know any brand that keeps the best interests of society in mind.”

– Tim Weber, Edelman UK

So how do companies show they are alert to political and social injustice, in an authentic way? Well, according to Weber, you have to do more than throw money at the issue. 

“Companies and their marketers are betting on corporate social responsibility projects: find a good cause, throw some money at it and hope the accompanying tear-jerker video will go viral.

Consumers, however, see through this cunning plan; more than half criticise brands for using societal issues as “marketing ploys”.

There you have it – If you want your brand to stay woke, you need to empower your brand with Purpose, Honesty and Realism.

1. Imbue Your Branding With Purpose

The easiest way to imbue your brand with purpose is to define the role your products and services play in our society. How does your brand contribute to the greater good? The answer to that question is your purpose.

toms shoes staying woke digital marketing strategies visualfizz

2. Don’t Fake it! Honest Branding Is Best Branding

Once you’ve defined your brands purpose you need to weave that purpose into your brand values, behavior and your business model. Remember that staying woke can backfire if you fake it, and today’s consumers do not take kindly to fakers. 

brew dog staying woke digital marketing strategies visualfizz

3. Focus on Storytelling

Good branding is good storytelling. If you want your brand to stay woke in 2020, your branding should focus on telling stories – not yours, but the stories of those affected by the issues your audience cares about. 

How does a brand tell stories? By creating content centered around a real social need and the credible contribution they make to address it. 

4. Apply an Editorial Lens to EVERYTHING You Create

You may not like it, but if you want your brand to stay woke in 2020 you need to apply an editorial lens to everything you produce. Even the best marketers can turn out a bad ad but, so long as that ad doesn’t offend it won’t ruin your brand reputation. 

You also need to apply an editorial lens to the platforms you use to spread your message. Don’t just yell your message into the wind – identify your audience; produce content tailored for that audience then release it on the platforms/channels where they are most likely to interact with it. 

Whoever and wherever your audience is, the most important thing you can do is apply an editorial lenses to how your brand interacts with them. You can insulate your brand from media coverage like this by rooting every customer interaction in honesty, realism and verifiable facts.

5. Never Make The Story About Your (Or Your Brand’s) Profits

Lasty, but most importantly, for your brand to stay woke in 2020 you need to shift the narrative around your brand from your brand name to the issues and people that are most relevant to your audience.

To be woke is, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that the racial, social and environmental issues that affect your audience are real. It’s to remove yourself from the narrative and focus on changing the world for the better.  In short, to be woke in 2020 is to realize the most important answer of all…

dr strange staying woke digital marketing strategies visualfizz

Hiring brand experts and social media managers like VisualFizz can help your brand stay woke instead of choke in 2020. Contact us today. 

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