Authentic CSR: 5 Ways to Avoid Woke-Washing

A new term has emerged in our industry and has been getting more attention this summer since Unilever’s CEO used it on stage at Cannes: “woke-washing.” Brands disguise advertising aimed at selling a product as a campaign for a social cause.

Increasingly, people are calling brands out for trying to capitalize on consumers’ social awareness. Personally, I don’t believe most of the marketing professionals whose companies have been accused of woke washing actually set out to prey on the conscience of their customers. So how does a brand fall into this trap and how can it avoid unintentionally woke washing?

Take Fearless Girl as an example. When an investment firm first put the statue in front of Wall Street’s Charging Bull in 2017, it was an immediate hit. The firm was promoting a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative tied to International Women’s Day to encourage companies to include more women on their boards. The whole country loved our Fearless Girl, and we loved the people who put her there. Until someone dug a little deeper. And someone will always dig a little deeper. We later learned the firm behind Fearless Girl had less than exemplary female board representation. In fact, it paid $5 million to settle discrimination claims from 305 top female employees.

And although upsetting, you can imagine how initiatives like this backfire. Someone in a siloed department – say advertising or marketing – has a great idea to get attention for the brand. Their team loves it and they execute it full steam ahead. It hits the public spotlight, and for the first time, people start poking holes in it.

Soon enough, the big idea becomes a big liability. But, the lesson here is not to play it safe with your ideas. By all means, when it comes to CSR, think big about how you can positively impact the world and your business. As you think big, however, also ensure you have a team vetting the ideas with your organization’s wellbeing in mind.

These are five ways our team at Jackson Spalding helps clients ensure they’re protecting and polishing their reputations with CSR campaigns that speak to who they are as a brand:

1 – Be authentic. Above all else, you should be able to clearly articulate how your CSR campaign aligns with your mission, vision and/or values. If it doesn’t, no matter how great the idea and execution are, you risk looking insincere and having the campaign labeled as a ploy to capitalize on emotions for the sole purpose of boosting sales.

2 – Consider your track record. Your company doesn’t need a spotless history on a social justice issue or cause in order to take stand related to it. However, you need to be able to demonstrate how your organization has improved and share plans for how you continue to drive real, measurable change inside and outside your company. Also consider any policies, contracts or other internal and external documents that would lead others to believe there’s a difference between what you say and what you do, and ultimately become the downfall of the campaign.

3 – Partner with credible nonprofits. Few brands have in-house experts on social justice issues. If you do, they’ll likely lack the credibility given to external organizations dedicated to that topic. Carefully select nonprofit partners who can work alongside you to develop a campaign that considers the vast nuances and complexities that come with the subject of any CSR campaign. As Pepsi learned, overlooking an insensitivity can result in immediate backlash.

4 – Get your employees on board. Your employees can be a CSR initiative’s greatest ambassadors or greatest critics. That’s why it’s essential to always have an internal rollout of your campaign first. Make sure employees know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how it will have a positive impact on the community (and the company). Ideally, you also provide them a way to get involved so they can experience the work firsthand. Once you have internal buy-in, the people talking to your customers, vendors, recruits and prospects will help share and even personalize the story behind your CSR work.

5 – Involve your customers. Don’t start and stop with a compelling ad campaign alone. Create opportunities to harness the enthusiasm your well-done promotional materials will elicit. Invite your customers to be part of the positive change your brand is promoting. Project ROI found involving customers directly in CSR activities increases their trust for your company while decreasing trust in your competitors. And be sure you allow your customers to be the hero, not the villain, in the story. Gillette is still coping with the backlash from its “The Best Men Can Be” campaign that launched with a provocative two-minute video earlier this year, which still today has 1.5M “dislikes” compared to 799K “likes.”

Don’t let the headlines slamming companies for their CSR attempts dissuade you from launching and promoting a compelling social issues campaign. With a strategic approach and thoughtful execution, you can create good in the world and goodwill for your brand.