“Woke” Advertising: Branding for Ethical Consumerism

“Woke” Advertising: Branding for Ethical Consumerism

Brand identity refers to the reputation companies actively cultivate about themselves and is crucial in attracting new customers and to garner customer loyalty. As popular culture evolves, trends in branding keep pace.

As younger generations put greater emphasis on ethical consumerism, one of the trends that is creating the largest splash in the public imagination involves developing a socially conscious brand identity. Referred to by young consumers as “woke” advertising, the branding promotes issues such as diversity and environmental conservation.

While socially conscious branding efforts are nothing new, (think Coca Cola’s campaign, “I’d like to Give the World a Coke” from the Vietnam-era) the standard to which consumers hold companies striving to be considered ethical has been raised. Listed below are the rules by which “woke” campaigns in the 21st century fail and succeed.


Brands that successfully develop a reputation for being “woke” cite specific causes that they support. Coca Cola’s 1971 commercial, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” imagined global unity without acknowledging the obstacles or backing a specific avenue to realizing that image. Today, Pepsi’s 2017 commercial featuring supermodel Kendall Jenner de-escalating a protest (that strongly alluded to a Black Lives Matter demonstration) by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi, was criticized for exploiting the particular movement by offering up vague and inoffensive images of protests on which the public could project any number of popular causes, without actually taking a stance on the issue.


Companies that have long supported the cause mentioned in their campaigns are considered more earnest than those who do not. The outdoor clothing supplier, Patagonia, which has a history of financially supporting a variety of grassroots ecological organizations, is widely accepted as genuine in their various advertisements that promote conservation. Conversely, Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl spot endorsed gender pay equality while women on their leadership team were outnumbered five to one (the ration has since become seven to one). The backlash from that advertisement drew on the idea that Audi was paying lip service to a popular cause without committing to it.


Companies that are identified as ethical include actionable steps to promote social change in their branding beyond buying their product. Advertisements that encourage public discussions, contacting lawmakers, or donating time or money, are heralded as active participants in social justice movements. Patagonia adding a number to text to the end of their TV ads that sends messages to congressmen in support of public lands can be easily acted upon by the consumer regardless of their purchase of Patagonia products. In contrast, Starbucks’ campaign, Race Together, encouraging baristas to discuss issues of race with clientele, was received poorly due to ambiguous parameters they set within which to broach the nuanced topic when Starbucks relies on hurried interactions and services many people simultaneously. The suggestion was considered inactionable and therefore pandering.

Considerate of historical context:

Advertisements that lack understanding of the historical context of present day issues are considered uneducated or outdated, regardless of intentions to assert timely views. Reebok, an athletic wear company, put out a graphic advertisement featuring a photo of black actress Danai Guirira with the words, “We have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on.” An image of a black women with text suggesting that supporting others (and possibly forgoing ambition in lieu of supporting others) is a goal to strive for ignores the historical context in which black labor, especially physical labor, was exploited for centuries, often at a detriment to their own success.

Successfully achieving a reputation of being “woke” is challenging and it is easy to drive customers away through missteps. However, done correctly, a socially conscious brand identity could net larger and larger portions of the market, as 9 in 10 millennials say they would support a brand affiliated with a cause and over 66% of Gen X and millennials are willing to spend more on a brand that shares their values. Given that over the next several decades, millennials and Gen X are set to inherit $30 trillion dollars from their parents and grandparents in the largest wealth transfer in history, corporate social responsibility is no fad. The alternative seems to be watching your profits decline with the rise of the new generation.

Share this article:


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *